Sunday, July 29, 2018

Plant Story--Apricot Folklore

an apricot

Apricots (Prunus armeniaca, see previous post link) have been in cultivation more than 5,000 years, so of course there are all kinds of folk tales.

apricot tree

The plant was probably domesticated in China--it is mentioned in texts from about 500 BCE. Apricots in flower became the floral symbol of the second month of the Chinese calendar. The second month generally corresponds more to March than February since the Chinese lunar calendar begins with the first new moon after the half-way point between the winter solstice and spring equinox. In China under the emperors, civil service jobs, highly desirable jobs, were chosen by testing the candidates in very difficult examinations. Those were administered at the beginning of the year, so apricot flowers in the second month were also "successful candidate flowers" as examinations were completed and winners announced. I don't have a photo that I am sure is Prunus armeniaca in flower, so here it is online link. Other apricots, for example the Japanese apricot, Prunus mume, flower later in the spring.
The Chinese love puns, so they combined swallows, whose name, yàn  , has the same pronunciation as banquet yàn 宴, with apricots because a painting of swallows and apricot flowers, could be read "apricot banquet," wishing the candidate the celebratory banquet of the successful candidate, which was classically held in an apricot grove. In a more elaborate pun xìnglín chūnyàn "apricot forest and spring swallow" sounds when spoken like "May you enjoy the spring banquet in an apricot grove" although the characters are different.

Checking the details on the above, I got tangled in the English homonyms, swallow and swallow. Apparently people Google the action more often than the bird. We could do a visual pun insult in the Chinese style: 
swallow from wikipedia
Swallow Flies
(photo from GraphicsFairy on Wikipedia)
Confucious taught his students while sitting under an apricot tree, so apricot trees an iconic part of his legend.

The Hunzas of the Himalayas, on the northern border of Pakistan, reportedly live extremely long (140 years?!) and healthy lives. The most unusual item in their diet was a lot of apricot seeds, which has given apricots striking health food status (link). Since the Hunzas live simple lives with lots of excercise, there are alternate explanations (for example link).


Apricots and particularly apricot seeds have been promoted as anti-cancer drugs. Amygdalin from apricot seeds was the key ingredient in laetril, a patent medicine promoted as a cancer treatment and then banned for its toxicity (link). Amygdalin, in whatever form, has never been found to be a strong anti-cancer compound and it is quite toxic.

Apricots are grown all over Israel and surrounding countries today. When scholars began arguing that the forbidden fruit of the Book of Genesis in the Bible, traditionally translated as "apple," could not be an apple since, for example, apples do not grow in the Holy Land and need a period of cold temperatures to flower, apricots were among those proposed. That might date the introduction of apricots to the Holy Land (from India and ultimately China) to before the origin of the Bible stories, except that current online discussions focus on the fact that the forbidden fruit lacked seeds, eliminating apricots.

Apricots have also been suggested as the "golden apples of the Hesperides." Bringing back the golden apples of the Hesperides was one of the twelve labors of Hercules in Greek mythology, assigned to the hero in atonement for murder (link). The golden apples were guarded by a hundred-headed dragon and the nymphs the Hesperides at the northern end of the world (link). Greece is a difficult place to grow apples and classically apples are red or green while apricots are yellow to orange. Several websites assert that "golden apple" was the Greek term for apricot. My sources are not good enough to verify that. At least three other fruits have been proposed as the golden apples of the Hesperides. Figuring it out is complicated by the fact that the word apple generally meant simply "a fruit" in English up until about 1500 when the Oxford English Dictionary first reports it in its modern usage, fruit or tree of the genus Malus. So the golden apples of the Hesperides were probably not apricots, but they're still in the discussion.

European plant lore promoted apricots cautiously: they were edible but be careful not to provoke vomiting. In the medieval philosophy of four humors and all things being hot or cold and wet or dry, apricots were considered cold, making the stomach cold. Medical references recommended that, to  the dangers of apricots could be neutralized--by vomiting. They were also thought to decay easily once in the stomach, for which an emetic was recommended. The oil from the seeds was used for inflamations, ulcerous swellings, impediments of the tongue and earaches.

In Cunningham's Encyclopedia of Magical Herbs, apricots represent love. Apricots are recommended for a sweet disposition but they could also be put it into love potions and spells, adding the leaves to sachets or carrying the pits to attract love.

apricot tree

There is much more since apricots have been grown in India and the Middle East, as well as the places above, for several thousand years. For example, the apricot is the symbol of Armenia, the yellow in the Armenian flag is described as representing apricots and the duduk, an ancient double reed instrument still played today (link) is always made of apricot wood. 

The trees can be hard to grow and the crop is often lost to late frosts. The fruits ripen and fall quickly and do not travel well. "The farther you are from the tree, the more disappointing the apricot." There are many varieties: if you haven't tasted all of them, do really know how good an apricot can be? All of these add to the mystique of apricots. Enjoy them!

Comments and corrections welcome.

OED Online. 2018. "apple, n.". Oxford University Press. Accessed July 28, 2018.
Cunningham, S. 1985. Cunningham's Encyclopedia of Magical Herbs, Llewellyn Publicatoins, St. Paul, Minnesota.
Rentyerevan. National Symbols of Armenia. link. Accessed 7/29/18.
Spencer, J. translator.  1983The Four Seasons of the House of Cerruti. (Tacunium Sanitatis) Facts on File Publications, New York. 
Valder, P. 1999. Garden plants of China. Timber Press, Portland, Oregon.
Welch, P. B. 2008. Chinese Art. A Guide to Motifs and Visual Imagery. Tuttle Publishing, Singapore.

Previous post on apricots link

Kathy Keeler, A Wandering Botanist

1 comment:

  1. Oh, how I love apricots. If I had been in the Garden of Eden they certainly would have tempted me. :D

    I enjoyed reading your history of the apricot tree. I have always loved apricots and always wanted to grow my own. The bland fruit in the grocery store attests to your statements that they do not travel well and "The farther you are from the tree, the more disappointing the apricot."

    We have planted an apricot tree and this is the third year of its harvest. The first year produce one three prized fruits that were delicious to the taste. The second year our tree fell victim to late frosts, winds and rains and produced only one apricot. This year it looks like we will be blessed with a plentiful harvest. Praying it holds true.