A Brief History of Almonds
Almonds aren’t really nuts, they’re drupes, and the sweet ones really good for you. The bitter ones can kill you.
Almonds grow on the almond tree, Prunus amygdalus, also known as Prunus dulcis. Almond trees are members of the rose family, the Rosaceae, and, as suggested by the genus name Prunus, they are related to prunes, apricots, cherries, and their closest relative, the peach. Unlike those well-known fruits, almonds are prized for their seeds. The fruit of the almond is not a true nut but a drupe. We call them nuts anyway.
Prunus is the Latin name for the plum tree. The specific epithet “amygdalus” is an interesting one derived from ancient Greek. Things that are generally almond shaped are “amygdaloid.” A couple of interesting examples of that are the amygdalae, the two almond-shaped regions of the brain that play a role in processing emotions; in geology almond-shaped agates are called amygdaloidal; and since there are quite a few examples of that kind of agate on Amygdaloid Island on Lake Superior, that’s how the island got its name. The island itself looks nothing like an almond.
Almonds are native to Iran and the eastern Mediterranean. Archeological evidence suggests that almonds were cultivated in the region as far back as 3,000 BCE. From there they spread eastward to China and westward to Spain, Morocco, and Greece. In the 1700s Franciscan monks brought the almond to California where the tree has done very well. Almond trees prefer a warm and dry climate but require plenty of water and a bit of a cold snap, but not too cold, to break seed dormancy, which is why they are not found in the tropics. They are sensitive to frost when flowering, though, so the winters have to be rather mild. Some almond cultivars can be grown as far north as Germany but not in any great quantity.
One reason that almonds got the attention of farmers early on is that they can be successfully grown from seed to produce offspring similar to the parent, which is not the case with many fruit or nut bearing trees. Suckers and shoots do not root well but grafting is a viable option. Almond trees are self-sterile, requiring pollen from a different individual to produce almonds. For that reason, almond orchards must contain a variety of genetically distinct trees to be productive. They also require bees for pollination.
There are bitter almonds and sweet almonds. Ever heard that cyanide smells like bitter almonds? For eating you want the sweet kind because the bitter ones contain amygdalin which becomes hydrogen cyanide when crushed. A couple of handfuls of bitter almonds could do you in. The cultivated edible variety has a mutation that prevents the synthesis of amygdalin.
Worldwide almond production is on the upswing, with about 1.7 million metric tons of almonds produced in the 2022 harvest, an increase of more than 50 percent since the 2016 season. Of that the vast majority come from California, which produced about 1.3 million of those metric tons. Australia, the European Union, China, and Turkey round out the top five producers.
You are probably tired of hearing, nuts, including almonds, are high in both calories and nutrients, but as long as you don’t eat them all day long, it’s a pretty good trade off. A serving consists of about 20 or so nuts and provides calcium, copper, magnesium, phosphorus, vitamin E, biotin (vitamin B7), monounsaturated fats, fiber, and phytonutrients such as flavonoids. Population studies suggest that regular almond consumption lowers the risk of heart disease. A few studies report a reduction in blood cholesterol.
Almonds are a versatile food. A handful of them make for a good snack. There is almond butter, almond milk (which, contrary to what you might think, is not a new thing), and almond flour for baking. All the almonds available in the U.S. are grown in California and can be purchased raw, roasted, or blanched. Blanching involves boiling raw almonds for a short time to take the skin off. California almonds for sale in the U.S. must be pasteurized to prevent food borne illness caused by Salmonella bacteria. If stored in cool dark conditions, almonds have a shelf life of about two years so you might as well stock up if you find them on sale.
More of A Brief History:
A Brief History of Pecans
A Brief History of Walnuts
A Brief History of Peanuts
Written by Philip McIntosh | Science & Technology Writer, Teacher