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The Blenheim Apricot Tree: Growing, Care, And Fruit

The beloved Blenheim apricot tree (Prunus armeniaca “Blenheim”) has been grown in the Santa Clara Valley — better known as Silicon Valley — of California for over 100 years.

Blenheim Apricot Tree
A Blenheim Apricot Tree.

As less and less land is available for agriculture, production of Blenheim apricots has been drastically reduced. Many apricot aficionados praise its perfect balance of aromatics and apricot flavor, and sweetness and acidity and its flavor that stands up to drying. The aroma of Blenheim apricots is often compared to honeysuckle.

History of the Blenheim Apricot Tree

Blenheim apricots were the preferred variety of apricots for European growers in the 1700s. In the 1800s, the Churchill family began growing them at their family estate, Blenheim Palace. Blenheims became associated with the palace before they were taken to California around World War I.

California fruit producers quickly discovered that Blenheims were perfect for eating fresh, canning, and drying, and that they came in later than other varieties, extending the production season. Until the middle of the twentieth century, most of the apricots produced in the United States were Blenheims.The only major failing of Blenheim apricots then and now is that they don’t hold up very well during transportation to market as fresh fruit. They have to be eaten, canned, or dried right away. As the major canneries have been forced out of Silicon Valley, there is just a tiny market for Blenheims as a locally popular fresh fruit.

The few Santa Clara county Blenheim apricot growers who are still in business compare their apricots to Pinot Noir. They make a point of picking Blenheims only when they are ripe — never with a tinge of green — and selling them in local farmer’s markets to enthusiastic fans. But there is no reason Blenheims can’t be grown in any compatible climate.

Blenheim Apricot Tree and Fruit Characteristics

Blenheim apricots don’t just produce large, sweet, aromatic, late-season fruit that can be eaten fresh, dried, or can. They also beautify the landscape with their fragrant pink or white blossoms in early spring. Their habit is round and compact. They retain their decorative shape as they mature.

Blenheim Apricot Tree Blossoms
Blenheim Apricot Tree Blossoms

For eating, Blenheims are usually described as the classic California apricot. They are very juicy. They have thick yellow-orange flesh. They have complex aroma and taste that is not diminished by drying.

Planting Zones

Blenheim apricots grow best in USDA Hardiness Zones 5 through 9. They need between 300 and 500 chilling hours, so they may grow as far south as Orange County in California, but they need cold, not cool winters at the northern extremes (or in the Southern Hemisphere, the southern extremes) of their range. In USDA Hardiness Zone 9, there will be years they do not get enough cooling hours.

Size and Spacing

Blenheims need to be set out at least 15 to 20 feet (5 to 7 meters) from other trees and permanent structures. They grow 15 to 20 feet tall and have a mature span of 5 to 20 feet

Tree Care 

In California, apricot trees of all varieties are usually planted on berms. These are raised areas of dirt, rocks and clods removed, that give the young tree extra drainage. Berms are usually about 6 inches (15 cm) high, with drainage furrows at their sides. The berm should be as wide as the eventual width of the tree, about 15 feet (5 meters).

Blenheim apricot trees are usually planted in late January or early February. Commercial growers will paint the trunks of young trees white to prevent sunburn. 

Sunlight

Blenheim Apricot Trees need to be grown in full sunlight.

Fertilizing

The first year you set out a Blenheim apricot tree, you should feed it by hand. California extension agents recommend putting out 12 pounds of 21-0-0 ammonium nitrate per acre. For the 5 feet around your young tree, that’s just an ounce or so. You can add compost for more nutrients and spray the foliage with diluted seaweed emulsion for micronutrients. In commercial production, nitrogen is the critical element for increasing later fruit production when trees are first put out.

Pruning

When you are getting a Blenheim apricot ready for planting, it’s important to save any branches with a large “crotch,” a wide angle with the trunk. Broken limbs should be pruned before the tree is put into the ground.

New Blenheim apricots need relatively severe pruning:

  • Any branches within 18 inches (40 cm) of the ground need to be removed.
  • Any branch that looks like it would be growing more up than out should be removed.
  • Just this once, the main trunk of the tree needs to be shortened to about 36 inches (90 cm).

The second year, you need to remove any branches that are growing at odd angles. Just this one time, shorten the last year’s branches (not the trunk!) to no more than 36 inches (90 cm, out from the trunk). Do not prune the trunk after you have planted the tree.

Then in subsequent years keep branches 8 inches (20 cm) apart so leaves can get sunlight and the fruit are easy to harvest. Remove branches that seem to be growing up instead of out. Do not trim the trunk of the tree.

Harvesting

For best flavor, wait until there is no trace of green on the fruit. Yellow skin with a red blush is a sign of ripeness.

Pests and Diseases

Extremely hot weather can cause “pit rot,” brown fruit around the pit. Apricot trees are at risk for fungal diseases when they are blooming. They also get mildew. To prevent spread of disease, do all of your pruning in late winter.

Check out this post for more on Apricot Tree Diseases.

Irrigation

Keep the soil around your trees, as far out as their branches extend, moist but not soggy, especially during droughts. 

General Rules for Taking Care of Blenheim Apricots at Home

Home fruit grower will get the best results with Blenheims if they:

  • Pull any weeds growing under the canopy of the tree. It’s OK to allow fallen leaves to compost over the winter, but it’s important to remove fallen branches, twigs, and rocks that come up with frost. 
  • Spread 1 to 2 inches (2 to 5 cm) of mulch over the area you have cleared under your apricot tree in early spring, but keep mulch 6 inches (15 cm) away from your tree’s trunk.
  • Although water-stressed apricots produce fruit with more vitamins and antioxidants, too much water stress can result in dead leaves and fallen fruit. When temperatures exceed 90 degrees Fahrenheit (27 degrees Celsisus) for several consecutive days in the summer, water the entire area under your tree with at least 1 inch (25 mm) of irrigation water per week. Flooding the area with a garden hose is adequate.
  • Make sure your Blenheim apricot tree is well-watered when blossoms appear. Keep the soil moist but never soggy. You should never have standing water under your apricot tree. Continue watering as necessary to keep the soil moist but not soggy until you have completed your harvest.

Common Uses For Blenheim Apricots

Blenheim Apricots on a Table. Blenheim apricots are the most coveted of the apricot varieties and are fast disappearing due to not being easy to transport.

The most common way to enjoy a Blenheim apricot is to eat it raw. Simply bite into the fresh fruit, peeling it first if you like, and enjoy!

The unique flavor of raw Blenheim apricots can be used to make an apricot-flavored applesauce. They can be diced and served on breakfast cereal for a honeysuckle scent on oatmeal or dry cereals. Blenheim apricots can be used as a topping for pancakes and waffles.

Inventive cooks can use fresh Blenheims to make:

  • Blenheim Apricot Waldorf Salad
  • Blenheim Apricot Spinach Salad
  • Blenheim Apricot Wild Rice Salad
  • Blenheim Apricot Shrimp Salad
  • Blenheim Apricot Fruity Chicken Salad

Dried Blenheim apricots find their way into scones, coffee cakes, strudels, and salads with nuts and wild rice. 

Apricot juice can be mixed with orange juice or added to mixed drinks. Blenheim margaritas are a traditional summer drink in Santa Clara. Blenheim apricot juice adds flavor and vitamin A to smoothies. And any form of Blenheim apricot makes an interesting addition to salad dressings, sauces, chutneys, moles, and salsas.

Health Benefits of Blenheim Apricots

Most people who love to eat apricots would be surprised to learn that though their flavor comes from the aromatic compounds they produce, much of their nutritional value is tied up in fat.

Even a fresh apricot contains a tiny amount of fat. How tiny? The USDA says the “standard” Blenheim apricot has about 0.14 grams of fat in a 100-gram serving. That’s a little more than 0.1 percent fat. That’s about 1/5 of a calorie of fat. 

The tiny amount of fat in Blenheim apricots, however, is what holds beta-carotene, alpha-carotene, lutein, cryptoxanthin, and lycopene in the fruit. These antioxidant compounds are soluble in fat, not in water. The apricot itself needs them to protect itself against sun damage, which is why they appear in the apricot. We are able to digest them from apricots because of the very, very small amount of fat in the flesh of the fruit.

These antioxidants in apricots are known to prevent the progression of age-related macular degeneration. They help slow down cognitive decline in older people. Because the human body can transform them into vitamin A, they are useful for supporting skin health.

Blenheim apricots that are not watered during the growing season produce about twice as many antioxidants as those that are irrigated. Dry-farming also produces apricots that contain about twice as much vitamin C and vitamin E. The plant makes these useful antioxidant vitamins to preserve its fruit and seeds through times of stress. A little stress on your Blenheim apricot tree results in a much more nutritious fruit.

Where Do You Buy Blenheim Apricot Trees?

Nurseries all over the United States sell Blenheim apricot trees. They are a specialty fruit, but they are not rare plants. If you live in California, you will have to buy your fruit trees from a nursery in California, but most other states permit importation of the trees across their state lines.

If you want to find apricot trees that you can buy online, check out Nature Hills Nursery.

Where To Buy Blenheim Apricots

You can find the most dependable supply of Blenheim apricots at farmer’s markets in June and July and maybe the first week of August. Sometimes the nurseries that offer Blenheim trees also offer small, sporadic amounts of the fruit to encourage interest in buying the trees.

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