Royal Blenheim Apricot

History

The Royal Blenheim Apricot is a gift of the gods, and we are so lucky to have an acre orchard of them. Blenheim Apricots on the tree Apricot in Latin means precious, and we heartily agree with the nomenclature.

Believed to have originated in China over 4000 years ago, it made its way to Europe. A very special seedling was planted in the Luxembourg Gardens in 1815, and given the name Royal. A man named Shipley was the head gardener at Blenheim Palace gave a seed to his daughter, who planted it and called the fruit Shipley’s Blenheim. So though the Royal comes out of France and the Shipley’s Blenheim comes out of England, they probably have the same bloodline. For simplicity’s sake, it is referred to as the Blenheim.

The Spanish explorers introduced the apricot to the New World, and specifically to California, where they were planted in the gardens of Spanish missions. In 1792 the first major production of apricots was recorded. Following the Gold Rush, apricot trees became a popular commercial nursery staple. During World War I, the shipment of dried fruit from Europe became impossible, and the demand for California apricots grew. The Blenheim, preferred by California drying yards for their superior flavor, soon blanketed San Benito, Santa Clara and Alameda counties as well as parts of the Sacramento Valley. But by the end of the 20th century, these trees were replaced by office parks and homes.

The change to a global economy dealt the death blow to the dried apricot market as cheap Turkish dried fruits flooded the market. First of all, the Turkish labor force is paid peanuts. Secondly, the California apricots are halved before drying while the Turkish ones are slip-pitted so they dry less evenly. Though inferior in quality, they are about half the price.

Orchard Planted in Honor of Bettye Lee Luhnow Bailey

Many apricot acres have been pulled out in San Benito County, but at Quicksilver Farm we planted our orchard in 2002 in honor of Bettye Lee Luhnow Bailey (1922-2002). To get them planted, we had 100 holes dug and then invited friends over to help with the planting, which took about 30 minutes. We treated everyone to a fabulous feast and a good time was had by all. To this day, many of the planters know which one or two they planted. "Three rows in and two from the left!" they exclaim as they arrive for our annual Apricot Celebration in July. We grow the apricots as a hobby crop, not a commercial crop. Our friends come with bags and boxes and pick the fruit to take home and use. We make apricot pies for everyone to enjoy as part of a sumptuous food banquet contributed to and delighted in by everyone.

We love our orchard, whether it’s the soft green of spring, the heady, sweet blossoms which follow, Apricot tree in bloom at Quicksilver Farmthe lovely fruit bowing the branches with its weight, the yellow departing leaves or the stark wood against the cold winter sky. It is a source of pleasure and prayer, a song, a dance and an on-going source of joy.

An Uncertain Future

The Blenheim’s future is uncertain. No longer viable commercially as a dried crop, it offers challenges to anyone trying to make a living off them. First of all, they are small compared to most apricots. (We like to say it has all the flavor of a giant apricot distilled down into a small, sweet and delicious package!) It also does not last long once it is ripe. The fruit is often freckled and blemished. In today’s supermarket, only the visually Hollywood-perfect varieties will do - no matter that they taste like cardboard. And finally, they keep a slight green blush on their shoulders, so the uninformed think they’re unripe. They don’t ship at all, really.

But off the tree, there’s nothing better. Here’s to the Royal Blenheim! May it be preserved for future generations by orchardists like us!