A small deciduous tree that grows 12 feet tall and equally wide, the apricot (Prunus armeniaca) develops into a well-shaped, round canopy plant. In the wild, old trees can reach 40 feet tall. Best grown where winters are chilly and summers long and hot, it serves a dual purpose in the landscape: ornamentation and fruit crops. In very late winter, the branches are graced with pretty pale pink flowers and a tasty crop of fruits is ready for harvest in early to midsummer.
Taxonomists and ethnobotanists place the native range of the apricot tree in China. It is believed that the hilly areas nearest the Russia border in the far northeast is where apricot trees first grew wild. Both the University of Georgia and the Apricot Producers of California's web site state that the Chinese made reference to cultivated apricots between 4000 and 3000 B.C. Confucius is said to have worked out his life philosophy under an apricot tree.
The Spread Across Asia
Chinese silk traders are believed to have introduced the apricot into Persia and Armenia. Alexander the Great embraced the beauty and tasty fruits of the apricot and promoted its cultivation all across the Persian Empire. The Romans came into contact with apricots in the Middle East, and Pliny's writings document that the Romans had already introduced trees into Rome by 70 to 60 B.C. according to the University of Georgia.
Apricots in Europe
While the Romans spread the apricot across their political land holdings and into Rome, Alexander the Great is known to have planted apricots in Greece around 4 B.C. Thus, the Greeks, Romans and Persians all introduced these trees into southeastern Europe anytime between 100 to 4 B.C. Interestingly, the Greeks called apricots "golden eggs of the sun" and assumed they came from Armenia, since they were also called Armenian plums. This incorrect assumption of nativity led to the apricot tree's botanical name---Prunus armeniaca---reflecting this error rather than the tree's actual origins in China. Apricot trees and their fruits were enjoyed all across the Mediterranean regions. By the 16th century. apricots were growing across northern Europe. In 1542, Henry VIII's gardener brought apricot trees to England.
Apricots in the New World
Apricots entered North America via two different Imperial powers. English settlers brought apricot seeds and seedling to the American colonies in the 18th and 19th centuries while Spanish missionaries brought apricots into southern California in 1770 according to the "Economic Botany: Plants in Our World" textbook.
Explosion of American Apricot Production
The apricot tree's ability to prosper and produce copious amounts of fruit in the Mediterranean-like climate of California led farmers as early as 1792 to produce major crops according to the Apricot Producers of California web site. By 1920, major apricot production centered in the Santa Clara Valley and then the Central Valley and Silicon Valley areas. Today, apricot orchards dominate the San Joaquin Valley.