Fruit, Nutrition, and Evolution.

Posted: April 15, 2012 in Politics, Tajikistan

Apricot Prunus armeniaca
The apricot is native to Central Asia, with it’s place of first origin thought to be in the hills of Western China. The wild population in the hills of South West Asia, (including Armenia, for which Western botanists named the species) is regarded as a secondary center of diversity. Whatever, the apricot’s wild range is all of Central Asia and parts of South West Asia. The apricot is found semi-wild and wild in the northern hills of China, and in a broad belt across the hills, mountains, and plateaus of Central Asia as far as the Caucasus mountains, between the Caspian and Black seas. Wild apricots are very similar to cultivated varieties, except that the fruit are smaller, as are the stones, with the amount of flesh relative to the stone also being less favorable. Most, but not all, have bitter kernels within the stone. Many parts of the range of the apricot are very dry, and dried apricots may have been a part of the human diet for almost as long as we have been in these regions. The first record of the domestication of apricots is an account of it’s cultivation in China, attributed to Emperor Yu, about 4,000 years ago. We can guess that the tribespeople of Central Asia would have developed ‘traditional rights’ to harvest ‘their’ parts of the apricot forests for millennia before this time. In China, selection by humans was for fruit with non-bitter stones, as well as good fruit. In some of the isolated valleys of the Central Asian Pamir mountains, apricot oil has been the primary oil for cooking, and in China the ‘sweet’ kernels are a valued food item, as well, of course, as the fruit.

Apricots were late coming to the West. It was supposed to have been brought to Greece following Alexander the Great’s invasion of Central Asia. From Greece, the apricot went to Italy, where Pliny referred to it as ‘the Armenian plum’, and eventually arrived in English ‘noblemen’s’ gardens around 1540. From England, the tree was exported with the colonists to the ‘new colonies’ of the British Empire – America, Australia, South Africa and New Zealand.

Modern production has given us larger, brighter fruit, probably with higher vitamin A content. The need to pick and ship firm fruit has also given us fruit that very often have less sweetness, and much firmer flesh than a home tree matured fruit. Curiously, no effort has been made to select for ‘sweet’ kernels in the West, so ‘waste’ stones from canning and drying fruit are presumably used for oil extraction, at best. New techniques in plant breeding are starting to produce some very interesting hybrids between apricots and plums. Some of these are very good eating, but whether their nutritional value – primarily vitamin A content – matches apricots, I don’t know.

Apricot flowers are easily damaged by frost, and the plant really needs a hot, relatively dry growing season. This limits the areas in which apricots can be grown, and in addition, unlike apples, they can’t be stored for months and months and months. This means that apricot production will always be limited.

Dried and canned fruit from areas near their natural range are good value, and their nutritional worth is still very high.

Apricots can’t be regarded as a significant source of vitamin C, but are a good source of vitamin A (as carotene)- one 35 gram apricot has 914 International Units of vitamin A, making them the third richest source of vitamin A of all the common commercial fruit listed on this page. Canned apricots are also good source of  Vitamin A, with one canned apricot having very approximately half the content of a fresh fruit.
Apricots are also high in potassium.

Nutritional analysis of a commercial apricot cultivar can be found at the Cape fruits website.

via Fruit, Nutrition, and Evolution..

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