Deep in the apricot’s tumultuous heart the hornet hums
—Melvin Walker La Follete
Thousands of years ago, beyond the pale of recency, in Lushan, China, a local doctor asked cured patients to plant apricot trees in their backyards in lieu of monetary payment—those cured of serious illnesses planted five trees and minor illnesses only one. The result, within the doctor’s lifetime, was a hundred thousand trees flourishing in that ancient city, filling its proverbial cup with ruddy fruit, heavy with flesh and dark stones.
Native to China, the apricot is often more closely associated with Armenia or Damascus. The Linnaean name is Prunus armeniaca, or Armenian plum, because the fruit reached Europe by way of Armenia. In Hispanic countries, it is known as a damasco, derived from its ostensible attachment to Damascus, Syria—at one point in time the locus for the trade of everything from stonefruit to deadly weaponry.
It is indeed Armenia, though, which harbors the apricot’s origins. Apricot seeds—ovular stones, like those of peach or nectarine—have been found during archaeological excavations in 6’000-year-old settlements there. The smooth stones seem immune to age, speaking even lately of the juice of many millenia past.
The bold nature of the apricot is its essence: it has an etymology like a deep-drinking root, the name arriving in English in 1551 as “abercock,” soon thereafter “apricock,” from the Spanish albaricoque, from the Arabic al-birquq, from the Greek praikokion, from the Latin præcoquum, which means “early-ripening” and shares its origins with the word “precocious.” How odd that my memories of summer, with its apricot sun flayed like a split fruit laid to dry on blue sand, would be so colored by something which is less a marker of the season and more its harbinger. It blossoms earlier than its peers, braving temperatures below -30Â° C, exposing its buds to the threat of wrenching frost. It is a precocious fruit, rude in timing, seductive with sweetness, the central weight of which has crept into culture as an icon of seduction: In Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Titania offers “apricocks” to the singing Bottom; in John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi, they play a central role in the plot’s tragic machinations. In fact, the original Latin name for the apricot, when Lucullus brought it back to Rome from conquests in Syria, was malus Armeniaca—Armenian apple—and was associated with the original apple that supposedly plunged the world into sin at Eve’s first delectable bite, prompted as she was to revel in its flavor and the knowledge that disobedience brought her. It is a precocious fruit: the extract , of its stone, amygdalin, is sold as a cure for cancer, and though it never vanquishes a single malignancy, it does sometimes dispatch the host with its deadly cyanide. It is a precocious fruit, an apple of sodom, an aphrodisiac, a laxative, an inducer of labor; a hot, dripping beast in the sky of my memory, red and orange like polished copper, disturbing the fastnesses of imagination with the knowledge of its insides.
Long before the French and Spanish carried its stones across the ocean to flower in the New World, its hardy trees populated the borders of Russia and China. Its fruit traveled the Silkroad in foodsacks, and dripped at the corners of every bite, and sat like ripe children in contented bellies; its stones savaged the wombs of beasts of burden where they were placed to prevent pregnancy; its pink blossoms erupted and either fed the amniotic fruit or withered in cruel springs.
I have understood, viscerally, the apricot’s precocity, its biting sugar; I have carried its stones in my pocket, hurled them to the whim of fish or foxes. It is a stone of summer, the heaviness at the center of the season, halved with the sudden violence of its coming. It was there before all else, before the warmth of the sun, before the lusting throngs which seek to devour it, before even the tree that bore it. It is a precocious idea, this early ripening.
Having myself lusted after split fruit, gutting the stones from orbs of red and orange, that I have known, intimately, the apricot’s precocity, and I think that I have shown no ripening in early spring, having come to some bitter fruits only in hot lateness, sufficient perhaps for strong, astringent brandy, dark and brown in deference to looming October. But what if I could stretch back across time, across thousands of years and thousands of harvests and countless heart-shaped leaves and stiff buds bare and resolute against the blustering wind? Perhaps I might dare, my heart a stone, to flourish in my spring, in a raiment of white and pink, arms dipped low with swollen fruit. What if the legacy of my blooming, black stones like dried blood, could face long centuries of dust to tell some searching descendant of the work of my age?—the tang of swords and fruits at a crossroads in Damascus; the peaching sun of my childhood, whispering to me of distant reapings and ruddy brows; the short infancies of lost empires expanding into the east; the prurient symbols hiding in split stone fruit, bleeding juice. This is a precocious fruit.