This nut of the Roseae family, botanically known as Prunus amygdalus originated in the Middle East and in Western Asia, Turkestan and Kurdistan. Experts believe that ever since pre-historic times, it grew wild or semi-wild in the warm and dry regions of the Middle East and Western Asia. The distinction between bitter and sweet almonds goes way back. Botanists hold that the cultivated sweet almond originated from the bitter as a result of natural selection over many generations. Genesis (43:11) mentions almonds among the things that Jacob bade his sons bring to Joseph in Egypt to win favor in their powerful brother’s eyes.
The Hebrew name for almond is ‘shaked’ from the root that means ‘early rising’ and ‘vigorous wakefulness’ -this denotes the tree’s habit of arousing itself into blossom and leaf while other trees tarry in their winter sleep. The loveliness of the tree as it leafed out and blossomed won warm adoration. It was a conspicuous motif upon the Golden Menorah in the Temple. The story of Aaron’s rod (Leviticus 17:16-24) reflects the vigor and life force of the tree.
Plantings of almonds moved westward to the Mediterranean region, where Spain and Italy became major almond producers.
In the middle 1700’s, the Franciscan Padres brought almonds to California to grace their missions. By the 1870’s, research and cross-breeding had developed several of today’s prominent almond varieties.
In modern times, when Luther Burbank came to California to seek his fortune, he chose the almond as the rootstock to fulfill a commission from an entrepreneur eager to cash in on the ‘prune boom’ of the 1880’s. To the astonishment of his contemporaries, Burbank was able to produce the trees in a very short span of time as he took advantage of the almond’s ability to sprout readily and produce a seedling suitable for bud grafting in a few months.
By the turn of the century, the almond industry was firmly established in California where ideal conditions for growing almonds were found in the Sacramento and San Joaquin areas of the state’s Great Central Valley.
Today, California is the only place in North America where almonds are grown commercially, with some 400,000 acres under cultivation by approximately 7,000 growers. In terms of dollar value, acreage and world distribution, almonds are California’s largest tree nut crop. At one time all of the U.S. almond supplies were imported. Today, California grows over half the world’s supply, including that for all of the domestic market.
Almonds, botanically, are a fruit -the ancestor of stone fruits such as nectarines, peaches, plums and cherries. The fruit grows on trees closely resembling peach trees in size and shape, and has a tough gray-green hull that resembles an elongated peach. The hull splits open at maturity to reveal the almond shell, which encloses the nut.
Because the almond tree is not self-pollinating, an orchard must have trees of more than one variety. Bees are brought into the orchard during the February bloom period to help pollinate the alternating rows of almond varieties.
Growing almonds is a year-round business. In winter, trees are pruned and orchards cleaned. From blossom time onward, orchards must be frost free, rain should be minimal and days warm enough (55-60°F) so bees will do their pollinating work.
By mid-March, the trees have leafed out and the first signs of the fuzzy gray-green nuts can be seen. With warm weather, the crop matures rapidly and growers are busy irrigating, controlling weeds and protecting the crop against harmful insects. In early July, the hulls split open slightly, exposing the shell inside. As the kernels start to dry, the split widens and the almonds are ready to harvest.
Almonds are balanced and nutritious. They are best eaten after being soaked in water over night. They can also be made into a delightful drink -see recipe section.
To store: Almonds should be stored in the refrigerator or any other cool place at temperatures below 35°F. Almonds freeze well if wrapped in a moisture-proof bag or placed in an airtight container.