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A Historical Reference of the Almond

What's In A Name

Almond nuts and leaves. 

Almonds had been cultivated for thousands of years before they had an official name. Science finally caught up in 1753, the year that Carolus Linnaeus, the Swedish botanist, classified the cultivated almond and named it Amygdalus communis L. But the name wouldn't last.

As botanists continued to refine their classifications, they separated almond species from other Prunus (peaches, apricots, etc.) into a subgenus Amygdalus. In 1768, the cultivated almond was redesignated as Prunus dulcis, for "sweet" almond. In 1801, a botanist named Batsch renamed the species Prunus amygdalus, meaning "Greek nut." His work was honored a hundred years later when science adopted Prunus amygdalus Batsch as the official name for almond. The name stuck until 1964, when the International Botanical Congress, in an effort to clear up some discrepancies in nomenclature, proposed Prunus dulcis (Miller) D. A. Webb as the official name of the cultivated sweet almond. Prunus amygdalus Batsch and Prunus communis were listed as synonyms.

For now, at least, Prunus dulcis is the operative term for the sweet almond.

A Taste of Asia

Map of Central Asia.

The almond you savor fresh out of the can, on your salad or cereal, in your dessert or casserole, came a long way to please your palate. Although primarily a California product today, the cultivated almond traces its origins to the deserts and lower mountain slopes of central and southwest Asia.

It is thought to have evolved from the same primitive stock as the peach, but took a different genetic route millions of years ago when the land rose up to form the mountains that separate Central Asia from China and Mongolia. The theory goes that, from then on, the peach evolved eastward into China, at lower elevations in regions of higher humidity, while the almond spread along the fringes of the deserts and lower mountain slopes to the west, developing many subspecies along the way.

The offspring of those early varieties still grow on the western slopes of the Tian Shan Mountains that separate western China from Kazakhstan, and to the south and west, in Kirghizia, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, Turkmenistan, and northern Iran. Typically small, thorny trees, they produce small, hard-shelled, bitter nuts. These varieties favor the mild, wet winters and dry, hot summers found at moderate elevations in this rugged region of the world.

Nomad's Necessity

Nomad illustration. 

At some point in prehistory, humans discovered that these hardy trees and shrubs sometimes produce sweet, edible kernels. The people of that era prized the sweet seeds as a staple food that had many uses and traveled well. In an early version of "Don't leave home without it," nomads created a trail mix of ground almonds, chopped dates, bits of pistachios, sesame oil and bread crumbs. Rolled into little balls, the mixture sustained them on long journeys.

Some of the wild stands of almonds occurred near population centers, and important trade routes, such as the Silk Road that connected central Asia with China, passed through wild almond groves. Such easy human access to the intriguing nut certainly aided the rapid spread of the species. As almonds traveled with humans, they took root wherever they fell. Seedling populations appeared along the trade routes and near ancient cities, a phenomenon that continues today. Wild stands of almonds can be seen along ditch banks and roadways in central California.

By 4,000 B.C., almonds were in use in nearly every ancient civilization. That was also about the time that humans learned to cultivate the trees. Almonds took readily to what is modern-day Iran and Iraq, and the lands surrounding the Mediterranean Sea. The climatic patterns of present-day Israel and Turkey favor almonds: cool, wet winters, mild spring, warm. dry summer, and mild fall. These conditions prevail for about 100 miles inland from the seacoast. Hebrew literature from 2,000 B.C. mentions almonds in Canaan, modern-day Israel. Early references from Turkey, Romania and the Baltic peninsula also mention almonds.

King Tut's Tote

Nile map illustration. 

King Tutankhamun took several handfuls of almonds to his grave in 1352 B.C., to nourish him on his journey into the afterlife. Persians and Arabs made a "milk" of almond meal and water, which they valued both as a refreshing drink and as an ingredient in other foods. Almonds were growing along the Nile, on the hillsides above the Holy Land, in the Fertile Crescent and dotted the Turkish landscape when Alexander the Great turned his eyes to the east. The next major migration of almonds took the sweet seed to the Mediterranean countries of Europe.

Pride of the Mediterranean

Perhaps some almonds from Persia or Egypt accompanied Alexander the Great's minions home to Greece. However they arrived, it was around the time (350 - 323 B.C.) of Alexander's conquests that almond culture spread westward to Greece and beyond.

Almonds, as do humans, adapt well to the Mediterranean climate's mild, wet winters and dry, warm summers. The versatile nut also filled an important niche in the agricultural economy of the region. Almonds occupied the upper slopes of valleys (as they had in Asia), where good air drainage protected them from frost and adequate water drainage protected their roots. This left the better soils and irrigated lands of the valley floor for other crops, such as cereal grains, vegetables and citrus.

The hardy almond tree's deep root system and natural drought tolerance overcame the shallow soils and arid conditions of the hillsides to produce acceptable yields with minimum maintenance. This system worked well for all concerned for many centuries.

The Almonds Mediterranean Homes

Mediterranean map illustration. 

All around the Mediterranean, hillside almond culture became well established with some areas developing important industries based on the nut, including France, Greece, Italy,Spain, Portugal, Morocco, Tunisia, and Turkey. Except for Spain, which is the second-largest almond producer after California, these sources no longer play an important role in the international trade in almonds. The traditional, minimum-input almond-growing approach cannot produce adequate yields to compete effectively with California growers who had shifted their plantings from dry hillsides to fertile, irrigated valley flatlands, and who had adopted modern cultural techniques.

Other small-scale almond producers, most of whom date their almond culture to ancient times, include Sicily, Sardinia, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, Romania, Israel, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, the Caucasus, Iran, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, and Australia.

Biblical References

Biblical illustration. 

Bible stories make numerous references to almonds as an object of value and symbol of hope. In Genesis 43:11, for example, a famine in Canaan (around 1500 B.C.) prompts Jacob to ask his sons to go to Egypt to buy grain. He told them, "Take some of the choice fruits of the land in your bags, and carry down to the man a present, a little balm and a little honey, gum, myrrh, pistachio nuts, and almonds."

In Numbers 17, "The Lord said to Moses, 'Speak to the people of Israel, and get from them rods, one for each father's house...twelve rods...And the rod of the man whom I choose shall sprout'...And on the morrow Moses went into the tent of the testimony; and behold,the rod of Aaron...had sprouted and put forth buds, and produced blossoms, and it bore ripe almonds."

In Jeremiah 1:11 a rod of almond is seen as a sign of rebirth: "And the word of the Lord came to me, saying, 'Jeremiah, what do you see?' And I said, 'I see a rod of almond.' Then the Lord said to me, 'You have seen well, for I am watching over my word to perform it.'"

Almond blossoms figured prominently in the design of the ancient Hebrew seven-branched lampstand (Menorah). When Moses was instructed to build a tabernacle in the desert he was told to furnish it with holy vessels, including gold lampstand. According to the Torah, he was instructed to "make a lampstand of pure gold...six branches shall issue from its sides...there shall be...cups shaped like almond blossoms, each with a calyx and petals."

A Symbol of Hope

Moses crafted pure gold lamps in their shape, Persian rug makers wove their image into their finest rugs, poets spin romantic passages about their delicate beauty and heady fragrance, Van Gogh devoted more than a dozen paintings to their likeness, Roman sculptors chipped their form from stone. From Biblical times forward the sweet-scented, early blooms of the almond have appeared in art, music and literature as symbols of beauty, hope, and rebirth.

Illustration of a mandolin. 

The protective shape of the almond seed itself has also figured prominently in art, especially religiousart of the Renaissance and earlier. The distinctive oval of the kernel forms a halo around religious figures in paintings, stained glass windows, frescoes, friezes, on book covers and in many other art forms to signify spiritual energy or to serve as a protective shield. Widely used by Italian artists, the halo was referred to by them as a mandorla, the Italian word for almond.

Ancient musicians adopted the pleasing oval of the almond in designing a musical instrument called the mandora or mandola. The lute-like instrument evolved in the 18th century in Italy into the mandolino (mandolin).

California Bloomin'

Illustration of Father Junipero Serra. 

Father Junipero Serra brought along a bag of almonds when he founded a string of missions from San Diego to Sonoma late in the eighteenth century. The scattered plantings from his bag of seed did not, however, evolve into today's California almond industry. Nearly a hundred years had to pass before the first commercial plantings in California took place.

Meanwhile, the first attempts to grow almonds commercially in the United States occurred in New England and the Middle Atlantic states around 1840. Attempts were also made around that time in the southern states, with soft-shelled varieties supplied by the U.S. Patent Office. Farmers in Texas, New Mexico, and Colorado also planted almonds. The thinking was that, since the almond and the peach are genetically similar, almonds should grow wherever peaches do. However, growers soon learned that the early blooming almond regularly fell to late frosts in those regions. And, if not to frost, to disease in areas of high humidity.

Illustration of the first San Diego Mission. 

It was left to California pioneers to assemble the right conditions and almond varieties to kick-start a prosperous industry. In the early 1850s, plantings near Sacramento, Monterey and Los Angeles all showed promise. The almond had found the Mediterranean climate from whence it had come and on which it had thrived for centuries. And the growers had selected seedlings adapted to the area. An industry was born.


(Above historical exerpts are from the book, The Almond People by Gray Allen & Jenni Haas; Blue Diamond Growers Copyright© 2000)