The time to worry about apricots is in February. Every farmer in the central valley dreads the series of warm days and moderate nights that awaken their trees from their winter dormancy. Being the first to put out a bloom anyway, the apricot is particularly susceptible to early signs of spring and as the delicate white flowers emerge the apricot farmer knows his crop is in trouble. Joining the late variety citrus grower, the apricot farmer must now endure the last of the winter's weather - with a fragile blossom's survival deciding the fate of the season. Such was the case in the early spring of 2009. While we were celebrating Valentine's Day, the first chapter of summer was being written. More than a week of moderate springtime weather followed heavy rain and nighttime temperatures below freezing took more than 70% of the apricot crop for the season before a single leaf was on the tree - the later springtime thinning of the crop was done before the fruit had even set courtesy of Mother Nature. Growers and shippers (and apricot fans like me) endured the weather, assessed the damage and prepared for what is sure to be a short, early season. Further into the spring, the same drama will play out in the Pacific Northwest as spring comes to the growing areas in central/eastern Washington, another large producer of apricots. There is also east coast production but the reason we see few regional or local apricot growers can be summed up by how often a crop is lost to weather. Apricots and cherries make up the earliest (and riskiest) harvest offerings of the summer. The immensely popular cherry generally takes center stage at the same time, eclipsing apricots from both a farm production and customer demand standpoint, but it is the uncertainty of the crop and the contribution apricots have made to other types of fruit that hold a special place for them with me every year. Like most classes of stone fruit (fruit with a hard stone-like seed in the center), apricots have several varieties that make up their short season. Some of the more common varieties are the Patterson, Castle bright, and the Poppy cot but there are literally dozens of old and new varieties that appear between late April and July. Among these is the Royal Blenheim, a very old canning variety that when tree ripened, is widely considered the best variety to eat out of hand. What makes it good also makes it a treacherous variety for retailers as the delicate texture of the Blenheim makes them susceptible to bruising. Red Velvet Plumcots- Central Valley California Experiments involving the grafting of trees on plum rootstock (or vice versa) have given apricots a shared parentage in a whole new class of fruit varieties. Each of the three broad classes has interesting and sometimes unique properties:
- Aprium: early cross that is a 75-25 blend of apricot and plum. Has the look and taste of an apricot but the texture of a plum.
- Plumcots: a 50/50 blend, the Plumcot can have characteristics associated with both classes of fruit. Can be low producing so availability is sporadic.
- Pluot: largest class by far with more than 50 varieties produced in California alone. This 25-75 blend of Apricot and plum has produced some remarkably successful varieties that produce throughout the summer.