User 1010888, via Pixabay

I have a busy weekend ahead of me – my first case of apricots has arrived from Central Otago and predictably, the mercury is still hovering around 29°C at 4.30 pm. I’ll be spending most of my weekend in the kitchen, engulfed in a cloud of steam, with a sticky bench and even stickier complexion. Is it worth it? Absolutely. In the depths of winter, nothing can brighten a dull day better than the glow of bottled apricots with your morning cereal, a tubful tucked into a packed lunch or a spongy apricot pudding as the evening draws in. Wattie’s may still churn out cans of Hawke’s Bay Golden Queen peaches and Black Doris plums, but you won’t find a tin of New Zealand-grown apricots on your local supermarket shelf – the Roxdale cannery in Roxburgh ceased operations back in 2006. I think apricots are my pick of the summer stonefruits – although I’m a big fan of aromatic white-fleshed peaches and nectarines, it is the apricot’s versatility and complexities than win me over every year. Delicately textured, juicy and sweet eaten fresh, their flavour intensifies and sharpens with cooking, while dehydrating them takes them to a whole new level of tangy perfection. They aren’t the easiest of fruits to grow and there seems to be more than a grain of truth in the old Kiwi adage that ‘apricots grow best where gold is found’. There are some low-chill selections available, however, so if you have some room to spare and a hankering for some summer gold of your own, give them a try.

Apricots: a short family history

Apricots, Prunus armeniaca, belong to the Rosaceae or rose family, the capacious clan which provides us with a plethora of cultivated fruits, nuts and ornamentals, from raspberries to rosehips via apples, pears and almonds. Apricots are native to regions in Central Asia and China, where they have been cultivated since at least 4,000 years ago. Genetic studies have revealed that domesticated varieties have arisen from three wild populations located in Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and China. From there, these cultivated varieties spread right throughout Asia, to North Africa and to Europe via the Romans in about 60-70 BC (and eventually from Europe to North America in the 17th century). The species epithet ‘armeniaca’ was assigned as it was originally thought that Armenia was the country of origin of the fruit, as apricots had been cultivated there since ancient times. Modern genetic testing has proved this is a misappropriation.

Apricots are close relatives of plums and it is disputed to this day whether P. brigantina, the Briançon apricot or plum (also known as marmot plum or alpine apricot), a wild species which hails from France and Italy, is in fact an apricot or a plum. You may have encountered some of the many apricot/plum hybrids at your local garden centre or supermarket: plumcots (for which we have the pioneering plant breeder Luther Burbank to thank), pluots and to a lesser extent, apriums and apriplums.


New Zealand is a small producer on the worldwide apricot-growing stage, with the total nationwide crop in the 2019-20 growing season worth just under NZ$10 million. Roughly two-thirds of this fruit is destined for the domestic market, with the remainder exported (predominantly to Australia). Central Otago and Hawke’s Bay are the main growing regions. Globally, Turkey is the leading producer, followed by Uzbekistan, Iran, Italy and Algeria. In the Southern Hemisphere, South Africa is the top producer, followed by Argentina and Chile.

Suitable climates and growing conditions

Apricots thrive in temperate climates with cold winters (but do not cope well with large fluctuations in winter temperature) and hot, dry summers. They require 300 to 1000 hours of winter chilling to set fruit, depending on the cultivar. Regions with high humidity are unsuitable, given the fruit’s susceptibility to fungal rots and bacterial disease – clear, dry weather at flowering and again at harvest are key for a decent harvest. Apricots are among the first fruits to flower in spring, so blossom and resultant fruit sets may be at risk in areas prone to spring frosts without adequate frost protection. Taking these factors into account, apricots are best suited to the lower North Island, and the upper and eastern regions of the South Island. However, those further north, do not despair – there are some low-chill cultivars available and with some extra care and attention, they could be worth the bother.

Apricots are small to medium trees, potentially reaching up to about nine metres in height, but best pruned to a maximum of four metres in the home orchard. Allow for a horizontal spread of five to eight metres, given this, it is wise to allow a five-metre spacing between trees. For smaller gardens, dwarf cultivars such as ‘Aprigold’ are available, which grow to a height of fewer than two metres. When well-cared for, the trees can live for in excess of 50 years, although their optimum fruiting period is between the ages of 10-20 years. You can expect a decent crop when your tree reaches three to four years of age, with mature trees producing in the region of 15-35 kg of fruit each, depending on size.

Apricots are self-fertile, so do not usually require the presence of a polliniser variety, however many are more fruitful when grown in the presence of another variety, e.g. Trevatt with Sundrop. Apricots can be cultivated from seed, but this takes a long time (sometimes up to 12 months for germination alone!) so you are best seeking out grafted plants of known varieties from your local nursery or garden centre. Seedling apricot, peach and plum rootstocks are all utilised for grafting apricots.

Site selection and planting

Apricot trees should be planted in autumn or winter - choose a sheltered location in full sun and avoid shady, frost-prone locations. Apricots prefer free-draining soils as they are prone to root rots – prepare the planting hole by working the soil well and making sure the area is weed-free. If you have heavy soil and a choice of rootstocks is available, choose an apricot or plum rootstock over peach. Keep the area directly under the tree free of weeds not only to prevent competition for water and nutrients but also to keep the frost risk down. Once established, avoid cultivation in the root zone directly under the tree as there will be many roots formed close to the soil surface.

Culture and care

Irrigation for apricots needs to be well-timed and balanced, given their susceptibility to fungal and bacterial diseases. Regular, targeted watering in moderate quantities at the root zone is best, avoid any systems that spray water upwards into the canopy. A layer of organic mulch can help conserve soil moisture, but above all, remember that apricots thrive in drier conditions.
In terms of fertiliser, for a mature tree, two 1.5 kg applications of general fertiliser during the growing season (one early spring, one mid-season/early summer) will be sufficient. Always apply prior to rainfall or irrigation to help move nutrients into the soil for uptake by the plant’s roots.

Pruning

Apricot trees are highly susceptible to fungal and bacterial diseases, so make sure any cuts you make while pruning is immediately sealed with a pruning paint containing a fungicide, e.g. Yates PruneTec® It is advisable to prune apricots to a vase shape, with an open centre. This allows adequate airflow to help prevent damp canopy conditions which are conducive of disease, good light penetration to encourage growth and ripening fruit and ease of access for harvesting and pruning. Some apricot cultivars produce fruit on one-year-old wood, but the majority of fruit on spurs arises from two-year-old wood or older, with these spurs continuing to fruit for about four years before they require replacing.

The only winter pruning apricot trees require is in their first winter at planting, to establish the basic shape of the tree. Choose three evenly spaced upright shoots, cut each back to a quarter of their original length, and then remove any other growth.

All subsequent pruning cuts should be made in the summer after the fruit has been harvested (usually sometime in February). Again, this is to protect the tree from the ingress of pathogens, with warm, dry conditions being most suitable. At the end of the first summer, choose five to six leaders that have grown from the three original shoots chosen back in winter. Cut each of these back to half their original length. Side branches that develop from these will become the fruiting arms. You want these to be horizontal in their growth habit, so keep an eye out for any strong, upright shoots that may develop and threaten the leaders – cut these back.

Once the vase framework is set up, remember to keep the centre of the tree open. Maintenance pruning should be focused on keeping the leaders and therefore overall tree height manageable, renewing the fruiting arms, shortening or thinning spurs and removing old spurs and encouraging spurs to develop on new growth for fruit production in future years. Don’t forget to remove any crossing-over branches and diseased material as well - older branches will become brittle with age and prone to disease. In marginal climates, you could try espaliering or training an apricot tree to grow as a fan against a stone or brick wall.

Pests, diseases and what to do about them

Apricots are susceptible to several fungal and bacterial diseases, with the risk increasing in humid climates. The key players are:

Silverleaf is caused by the fungus Chondrostereum purpureum and is characterised by the foliage of affected trees taking on a distinct silvery sheen. Infection takes place when airborne spores land on sapwood exposed to open wounds (e.g. at pruning), hence this activity should be avoided in damp weather and all cuts sealed immediately with pruning paint. Once the infection is present, it spreads throughout the tree and is usually fatal – you can try to limit its spread by pruning off affected wood and inserting TrichodowelsTM into the trunk.

Brown rot is the bane of the stonefruit grower’s existence – it is caused by the fungus Monilinia fructicola and causes unsightly patches of soft, brown rot that can penetrate fruit flesh right to the stone. The disease is exacerbated by warm, wet weather conditions at flowering and results in a host of symptoms including blossom blight, twig blight and canker and the aforementioned fruit rots – the speed at which the latter can march is astounding, under optimum conditions, the fruit will decay in 48 hours and the rot can continue to spread post-harvest. You’ll probably be familiar with the regions of brown rot on fruit, decorated with fluffy tan or grey spores that if left unchecked, will result in black, mummified fruit that clings to the tree long after harvest. Part of managing this disease’s cycle is removing all mummified fruit and cankers from the tree and surrounding area, burning the material and an application of an appropriate fungicide spray during flowering.

Apricot canker and bacterial blast, caused by the bacterium Pseudomonas syringae pv. syringae shows up as limb dieback with weeping cankers and/or gummosis on branches and trunks. You may also see spots on the leaves and blast damage on flower buds and young shoots. Maintaining healthy, vigorous trees by carefully managing irrigation and nutrition can help stave off infection, as may copper sprays during the leaf fall period. Once infected, prune affected limbs back approximately 30 cm below the canker – until you hit clear, unstained wood (you may have to remove an entire branch or leader) – and seal with pruning paint.

Insect pests play second fiddle to the microbes in the apricot ecosystem – leafroller caterpillars, grass grub beetles, spider mites and scale insects may make an appearance. A winter clean-up oil sprays and if necessary, an application of neem and/or Bacillus thuringiensis bio-insecticide in the growing season will hopefully tickle up any issues. A word of warning – don’t be tempted to use any sulphur-based sprays on apricots as they are sulphur-sensitive in the extreme.

Varieties: My top picks

I have a soft spot for heritage apricot cultivars, but there are many more ‘modern’ varieties likely to suit the home gardener.

Newcastle – an old, small-fruited early variety, excellent eating.

Trevatt – my absolute favourite for preserving but eats well too. The mid-late season can work in warmer climates and crops well.

Moorpark – very popular older apricot for preserving and eating. Better suited to colder climates – does especially well in the lower South Island.

Sundrop – developed in the late 1970s, popular mid-season variety, medium-large fruit, good cropper, suitable for eating and preserving. Plant with Trevatt for best results.

To suit special situations or extend the growing season:

Royal Rosa – Very early, hardy low chill variety with a red blush that’s reportedly worth a try from Cape Reinga to Bluff.

Cluthalate – A late season variety to extend the shoulder of the season, but needs the combination of cold winters and hot summers to produce well.

Aprigold – the dwarf variety for those with small sections (< 2 metres at maturity) – early season fruit with good flavour and suitable for all climates.

The Nelson Branch of the New Zealand Tree Crops Association has trialled several apricot varieties of New Zealand extraction, purported to be low-chill cultivars (the Nelson/Tasman climate is a tad on the marginal side for apricot production, with decent crops about every third year). These were Tamaki, Pahi, Waipapakauri and Fitzroy. All fruited well in that magical one year in three when other cultivars also produced a good crop.

What to do with your crop

If you don’t have a supply of fresh apricots in your neighbourhood, many Central Otago orchards will happily ship cases of fruit nationwide. Even with the freight cost, you will be pleasantly surprised to find the cost per kilo is still usually less than that from your local supermarket (and the quality and flavour unparalleled!).

Eaten your fill of fresh apricots for the year? Keen to put a few by for the winter months? You’re in luck, as this fruit is one of the most suitable for preserving by a variety of means. Apricot jam is the favourite of many, if you’re too busy to make a batch in summer, you can halve, stone and freeze the fruit in bags or ice cream containers to deal with later. Cook straight from frozen – the fruit will brown on thawing. You can stew the fruit with a little sugar and water and pack this away in tubs for winter use as well. If you’re short on freezer space, why not try your hand at bottling? It is easier than you think and results in shelf-stable jars of fruit that won’t take up valuable freezer space – see below for the method.

I also make sure I put down a batch of Digby Law’s apricot chutney (from his legendary Pickle & Chutney Cookbook) every year. If pickling and preserving are not your forte, but you want a taste of summer in summer as well as winter, apricots make fabulous ice cream and I recommend David Lebovitz’s Fresh Apricot Ice Cream from The Perfect Scoop (Ten Speed Press, 2007).

I’m a big fan of dried apricots, so each year I buy a case of a tiny, cute-as-a-button variety called ‘Peeka’ specifically for drying. To do this in a time and cost-efficient manner, you really need a food dehydrator. I bought mine several years ago as a “congratulations for paying off your student loan” present to myself and it has paid me back time and time again. 10 kg of fresh apricots will give you approximately 1.5 kg of dried apricots – it may seem like a tiny yield, but due to their intense flavour, they go a long way. Any apricots too squishy to dehydrate whole can be stewed with some apple, blended in the food processor or passed through a mouli and spread on solid trays to be dehydrated as fruit leather (8-10 hours dehydrating at 55°C/medium setting). Apricot pastes in sheet or block form are a mainstay of Middle Eastern and Mediterranean pantry stores, so why not make them part of yours too?

The basic method for dehydrating apricots

The night before drying, I retrieve a 300 ml container of frozen citrus juice (lemon, lemonade or lime) from the depths of the freezer and thaw this, placing it in a large mixing bowl. Find another similar-size mixing bowl and a sieve to sit over it. Halve and stone small apricots.

To hasten the drying process, you need to ‘pop the backs’ which means using your thumbs to press each half inside out, creating a dome shape (as opposed to the natural cup shape of each half) and opening up the flesh in the process. Drop the prepared halves into the citrus juice and mix gently so they are all coated – I often leave them to soak for a minute or two while I prepare the next batch of halves. Tip the dipped fruit into the sieve to drain for a couple of minutes, then arrange it on the drying racks with the skin side touching the racks. Keep recycling the drained juice back into the main bowl. If you have mesh sheets, use these to line the dehydrator racks as it makes removing the fruit easier later on. Repeat until you have sufficient fruit to fill your racks, then dehydrate for 8 hours at 55°C or the medium heat setting. Rotate the racks and then dehydrate for a further 8 hours or so until leathery and there are no squishy spots. Any squishy halves I find are eaten immediately or stored in a jar in the fridge for quick consumption. Properly cooled and stored in well-sealed glass jars, the dried fruit will last for at least a year at ambient temperature. You can also vacuum pack or freeze the dried fruit. Add any leftover drained citrus juice to your fruit leather mixture for an extra bite.

The basic method for bottled apricots

Equipment:

  • Preserving pan or stockpot (preferable) or a large saucepan
  • Ladle
  • Slotted spoon – helpful but not essential
  • Large kitchen knife
  • Tongs
  • Smaller saucepan
  • Wooden spoon
  • Wide mouth preserving funnel – helpful but not essential.
  • Wooden chopping board
  • Tea towels and a clean dishcloth

EITHER

  • Preserving Jars, 1 litre and/or 500 ml (e.g. Agee or Perfit brand)
  • Preserving (dome) seals
  • Metal rings to fit preserving jars – green bands for modern jars, gold bands for the old, thick glass jars with a prominent lip below the thread (remember ‘old = gold’).

OR

  • Clean, recycled commercial large-size jam jars with sound, lacquered metal lids – make sure the undersides of the lids are free from marks and scratches and that the lids themselves are not dented.

Ingredients:

  • Ripe but firm apricots
  • Granulated white sugar
  • Water

If using preserving jars, the larger one-litre jar will hold 1 kg prepared fruit, and the smaller, squat 500 ml size will hold 500 g prepared fruit. If using jam jars or similar, measure the volume of the jars you are using and use this to calculate how many jars you need based on the amount of fruit you have to prepare and the rule of thumb that 100 g of prepared fruit will take up 100 ml of jar space. Or simply eyeball both and use your gut instinct to calculate the number of jars required (plus a few extras!).

Preheat your oven to 125°C. Wash jars and rings in hot soapy water, drain and then place jars on their side on oven racks. Heat for at least 30 minutes to sterilise. If your preserving funnel is metal, wash this along with the jars and pop it in the oven too.

Make the syrup: For five kilograms or more, start with a double batch of syrup – 2 cups sugar and 6 cups water. For a smaller quantity, use a single batch, 1 cup sugar and 3 cups water. Place sugar and water in the preserving pan and bring to a boil, stirring occasionally until the sugar is dissolved. Reduce the heat and simmer steadily for 15-20 minutes while you prepare the fruit.

Place dome seals in the smaller saucepan and cover with water. Drop in the slotted spoon, knife and tongs. I don’t sterilise my preserving rings but you may prefer to.

Wash apricots in cold water. Halve, stone and place in a large bowl – mine has a capacity of about four and a half litres and I find this is a nice quantity of fruit to work with as a batch. Once the syrup is ready, tip the apricots into the preserving pan and push down gently with the ladle to make sure they are just submerged. Quite a bit of apricot juice will be released during the cooking process. Leave the ladle in so the boiling syrup sterilises it. Turn the burner on under the saucepan with the domes and utensils, cover with the lid and bring to a boil – ten minutes will sterilise everything. Allow the apricots to simmer gently in the syrup for approximately seven to ten minutes after they return to the boil – they should be just tender and still holding their shape.

Remove the hot jars from the oven using your sterilised tongs and place them on the wooden chopping board. Place the preserving pan on a heat-resistant mat near the board with the jars. Remove the metal funnel from the oven with tongs and place in the mouth of a jar. If your funnel is plastic, rinse briefly with boiling water (to be honest, I really recommend investing in a metal funnel). Fill the jars with hot fruit, then top up with syrup to the level of the jar rim. Take the knife and push it down the side of the jar until it reaches the bottom, then pull inwards – this gets rid of the air bubbles trapped inside the jar. Repeat at least four times around the circumference of the jar – I go by the points of the compass. Wipe any bits of fruit from the rim using a clean cloth, dipped in boiling water. Top up the syrup so it is level with, or just spills over the rim. Pick up a hot dome seal from the saucepan with your tongs and drop it on top of the jar. Wiggle it in place so the rubber seal lines up perfectly with the rim of the jar. Grab the wooden spoon and turn it upside down. Place in the centre of the lid and push down gently – the excess syrup will flow out of the jar (hence – the overflow method!). Take one preserving ring and pop it over the wooden spoon with your other hand. Thread the ring onto the jar and screw it down tightly – it’s a tricky dance but you’ll get the hang of it. Take away the wooden spoon and grab a tea towel – wrap this around the jar and tighten the ring all the way. Line another spot on the bench with tea towels and place the finished jars on the towels to cool – if you put them straight on a cold surface they will crack, game over. Repeat for the remaining jars and batches of fruit. If you have a part-filled jar, you can return it to the oven to wait for a top-up. For the commercial jars, follow the filling steps and then just wipe the rims and screw on the lids – don’t forget the tea towel, hot jars and fruit are a major burn hazard. If there is any leftover syrup, I bottle this too – use it as a cordial or dessert sauce.

Leave the jars on the bench for at least 24 hours before unscrewing the rings – properly sealed jars will have concave domes or lids. Clean the excess syrup from the jars using tepid water (hot water can crack the jars and your hard work will go down the drain) and a cloth - a nail brush also works wonders on the threads. Refrigerate any jars that don’t seal for immediate use, or scoop out the contents into another container and freeze. Apricots bottled this way will keep for up two years if the seals remain sound.

Anna-Marie Barnes is an active member of the New Zealand Tree Crops Association who endeavours to grow and preserve as much of her own fresh produce as possible. When the weather’s no good for gardening, she can usually be found inside working on a batch of homemade cheese or soap.

The New Zealand Tree Crops Association is a voluntary organisation promoting interest in useful trees, such as those producing fruit, nuts, timber, fuel, wood, stock fodder, bee forage and other productive crops. Find out more about the NZTCA here: https://treecrops.org.nz/

 

Image credits
Apricot blossom – Pezibear, via Pixabay
Apricot tree in fruit – User 1010888, via Pixabay
Apricot preserves – RitaE, via Pixabay