Apricots and The First Sign of Summer

Produce expert James explains how the weather can affect the apricot crop — one of the early harbingers of summer — and shares tips for selecting apricots in our stores.

I planted a new tree in my backyard last summer. It was actually a rescue – one of my neighbors put an apricot tree in a pot, it had grown too big and they had nowhere to plant it in their yard. I placed it in a sunny spot in between a magnolia and a strange small tree I cannot identify that has beautiful white blooms in the spring. The apricot variety is Royal Blenheim – my favorite so it didn’t take much convincing to get me to adopt it.The weather around my home is not ideal for apricots and there is no other tree in the immediate area that I am aware of for pollination, so I have pretty low fruit productivity expectations.  But mature apricot trees are beautiful – dark, textured trunk and branches, elegant red stemmed leaves, and a beautiful leaf drop and bloom stage. Even if I don’t always get a crop I won’t be disappointed. I’m sure the little apricot will be a happy addition to my family of trees.

I imagine long-time commercial apricot producers must have similar thoughts — particularly during the winter and spring weather months. The life cycle of an apricot tree is treacherous and fraught with dangers and, like cherries and other early varieties of summer fruit, there is a long list of climate events that can kill a season. This year we dodged an early bullet with apricots – the January freeze that wiped out so much of the southern U.S. and northern Mexico crops happened before the blossom set in apricots, while the trees were still in their winter dormancy stage. The bloom and pollination periods in apricots went off about as well as can be expected but the new concern is maturity and mold – brought about by an unusually cool and wet spring.  This kind of weather will almost always result in harvest delays, which can create problems that extend beyond the farm. Growers plant tree varieties that mature at different times over the course of the season so if the weather does not behave in a predictable way, it can cause these varieties to “bunch” — creating periods of short or over supply.

Fresh apricots are also a difficult item to bring to market. Since they bruise easily when ripe, the fruit you see at your supermarket will rarely be ready to eat immediately. Mature (but not ripe) apricots should be uniformly yellow and firm – there can be a little green on the stem end but not much. Many varieties will have a red blush but this is created by the fruit’s direct exposure to sunlight and is not a factor in determining maturity. It is best to let the fruit you buy sit at room temperature for a few days before you eat it. When I buy apricots for the week (dozens at a time), I put some in my fruit bowl and the rest in my refrigerator — bringing them out when my room temperature supply runs low. Apricots should be soft to the touch but not too soft – many varieties ripen from the inside out and overly soft fruit can be overripe around the seed cavity. Another reason to eat apricots at room temperature is fragrance — cold fruit will not have that iconic smell that separates apricots from all other fruits.

The bloom stage this spring for my new apricot tree was short and small. There is no fruit on the tree but I wasn’t expecting any. I know it will be a few more years before my awkward adolescent is established enough to spare energy for anything outside of roots, leaves and branches. We can talk about being a productive contributor in my garden when we are both older and know each other a little better. But even in its youth my little apricot tree is a place holder for a very special time in our cycle of seasons. Its tiny branches and new leaves are already among the first signs of the summer to come.

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