Eaten straight from the tree, homegrown apricots are the pick of the stone fruit. Words & Photos Gillian Vine
Apple lovers may not be pleased to learn that the ‘golden apples of the sun’ in Greek mythology were actually apricots. Apricot addicts must feel, though, that it’s a justifiable celebration of a fruit that has been enjoyed for millennia.
As former Kiwi Gardener writer and horticulturist Andrew Steens puts it: “If you can grow apricots in your area, you should, as tree-ripened apricots are a true gourmet delight.”
The problem is that most commercially grown apricots, including ‘Moorpark’ and ‘Clutha Gold’, need high levels of winter chilling and hot summers to produce well. Central Otago, Nelson and Hawke’s Bay therefore are the main growing regions.
Winter chill is when the temperature drops below –7°C. That has given rise to the notion that they’re impractical for many gardeners. However, the development of low-chill varieties – ‘Royal Rosa’, dwarf (‘Aprigold’, ‘Golden Glow’) and semi-dwarf (‘Garden Annie’, ‘Katy Cot’) – has put apricots within the reach of many more Kiwis.
Apricots (Prunus armeniaca) are thought to have originated in central Asia and northern China. The Chinese are credited with developing bigger, sweeter fruits from the wild species, perhaps as much as 4000 years ago.
The Romans, who first encountered apricots about 100BC, thought them a type of plum and they weren’t far wrong, as both belong to the Prunus genus, along with peaches, nectarines, cherries and almonds.
There is dispute over ‘Roxburgh Red’, with some claiming it came from Australia, while others maintain it was a seedling grown near the Central Otago town about 1880. Some specialist nurseries still supply this heritage variety, its deep colour and excellent flavour making the best-ever jam.
Most apricots are self-fertile – ‘Sundrop’ is an exception – so only one tree is needed to produce fruit. Having said that, if there is space for two, crops will be heavier.
To get around the problem of needing a mate for ‘Sundrop’, some nurseries offer it double-grafted with ‘Trevatt’.
You can choose from tall (up to 8m at maturity), semi-dwarf (to 4m) or dwarf (1.5–2m) varieties that need varying amounts of winter chilling. Check before buying that the chosen apricot is suitable for your region. As a rough guide, dwarf and semi-dwarf varieties grow better in the North Island.
The trees do best in well-drained, fertile soil that edges towards being slightly alkaline. If the pH is less than 7 (the neutral point on the scale), lime will need to be added to the ground.
Early European settlers brought apricots to New Zealand, with 18th-century English variety ‘Moorpark’ and Californian ‘Newcastle’ among the first imports.
Winter is the time to plant fruit trees, when they are dormant, although that can be challenging in places where very heavy frosts make the ground difficult to work. Dwarf varieties are perfect for container planting.
A small amount of fruit may be formed (set) the first season after planting but these should be stripped off while tiny (well, maybe let a couple mature) as your tree needs to build its strength while young to ensure healthy crops in years to come. Harvesting runs from late November to mid-February, depending on the variety. All apricots are best picked when fully ripe.
Early: ‘Royal Rosa’, ‘Newcastle’, ‘Garden Annie’
Mid-season: ‘Sundrop’ Late: ‘Moorpark’, ‘Trevatt’
Plumcots, pluots and apriums are plum/apricot crosses, generally maturing at the same time as apricots.
Late frosts can be a pest, destroying blossoms, while wet spring weather may inhibit bee action, reducing pollination and therefore fruit production.
Because apricots can get canker infections, which sneak into pruning cuts, prune after harvesting and when the weather is fine. Use pruning paste on all cuts bigger than the top of your middle finger, treatment that also keeps the dreaded silver leaf disease at bay.
Brown rot can damage fruit, making it inedible. Spraying with a recommended fungicide when the flower buds swell (but before they open) helps control it.
Leaf curl can be an issue but is more common on peaches and nectarines.
Apricots are as versatile as apples when it comes to cooking. Jams, preserves, sauces and chutneys, dried fruit, desserts and ice-creams, Moroccan-style lamb and apricot tagine, chicken and apricot casserole all demonstrate the wide-ranging uses of this delicious summer fruit.
Apricot kernels are sometimes added to dishes, mainly jam, to improve the flavour, and used in massage oils.
Extravagant claims are made about their health benefits but the National Poisons Centre says: “Raw apricot kernels contain a naturally occurring toxin which can break down to release cyanide when eaten. This can be harmful, depending on the amount consumed.
“It can cause a wide range of symptoms ranging from nausea, stomach aches, headaches and respiratory symptoms through to cardiac arrest, depending on the amount eaten, and can be serious, especially in children.”
It is now illegal to sell raw apricot kernels in New Zealand.
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