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The Hunza Apricot Tree

If you are old enough to remember when The Flintstones weren’t in syndication, and you were a teenager when the first astronauts walked on the moon, you have probably heard of something called the Hunza diet. It was a regular feature in Parade Magazine, which came with the Sunday paper.

Hunza Apricot Tree Blossoms - Hunza Valley
Hunza Apricot Tree Blossoms – Hunza Valley, Pakistan

Hunza is the name of a valley in northwestern Pakistan. In the 1920s, an Irish physician named Robert McCarrison worked with the native people there. He found them to be unusually healthy.

As a result, as quaint as it may seem now, McCarrison became one of the first Western physicians to study the relationship between diet and disease.One hundred years ago, people in the Hunza valley ate two meals of grains, seeds, yogurt, and apricots a day, and one cooked meal in the evening. 

McCarrison reported the diet in the medical journals of his time, retired, and died Sir Robert McCarrison in 1960. After his death, this seed, nut, yogurt, and apricot diet was rediscovered and dubbed the “Hunza diet.” You can’t go on a Hunza diet, of course, without Hunza apricots.

History of the Hunza Apricot Tree

Scientists don’t really know how long the Hunza people have been growing Hunza apricots. A population geneticist named Nikolai Vavilov has confirmed that the world’s first apricots were domesticated somewhere near the Hunza valley, and they spread around the world from there. Hunza apricots are the “original apricot” from which all other apricots were derived.

A British doctor named Guy Wrench picked up on the work of Robert McCarrison and made the Hunza apricot the model organic food, at the beginning of the organic movement in the 1950s. Ironically, Hunza apricots almost went out of production before production was revived around 2005.

Hunza apricots had been respected around the world for many years, but only after 2000 the Mountain Fruits Company developed the transportation needed to move the “real deal” from the farms of northwest Pakistan to the airports and seaports in Islamabad and Karachi. With these connections, traditional Hunza farmers now can sell between 6,000 and 10,000 metric tons of Hunza apricots every year for export, fresh and dried. Because of the reputation of Hunzas as the original organic apricot, Hunza farmers have a niche for their product despite hugely greater production in Turkey, China, and the United States.

Hunza Apricot Tree and Fruit Characteristics

Blooming Hunza Apricot Tree
local lady and blooming Hunza apricot tree in prestine Hunza Valley, Karakoram Highway, Pakistan

Hunza apricot trees grow at elevations of 4,000 to 8,000 feet (about 1,200 to 2,900 meters) in the foothills of the HImalayas. They are extremely tough trees that can take winter temperatures down to -22 degrees Fahrenheit (-30 degrees Celsius) in the winter and temperatures of 105 degrees Fahrenheit (40 degrees Celsius) in the winter. They can survive being buried in the snow and they withstand summer drought. 

Hunza apricot blossoms fill the spring landscape with white. There are no great groves of Hunza apricots anywhere. According to the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development, the largest Hunza apricot tree grower in Pakistan has just 150 trees.

Hunza apricots are hard to ship. That’s why Pakistani-raised Hunza apricots command a premium price in North American and European markets, when they can be found. 

There are no commercial Hunza apricot tree groves in North America. They are a unique tree for home hobbyists. But their tenacious growth habits and their deep apricot flavor make them a favorite for hobbyists in North America.

Planting Zones

Hunza apricots will grow in USDA Hardiness Zones 4 through 9. They need around 500 chilling hours, so they may not produce every year in USDA Hardiness Zones 8 and 9.

Size and Spacing

Hunza apricots need to be set out at least 10 to 25 feet (3 to 5 meters) from other trees and permanent structures. They grow 10 to 15 feet( 3 to 5 meters) tall and have a mature span of 10 to 15 feet in Pakistan. They may grow larger with milder winters and more irrigation in North America.

Tree Care 

Hunza apricots are self-fertile, you will get better production when you have more than one Hunza apricot in bloom at the same time. In the United States, apricot trees of all varieties are usually planted on berms. Berms 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).

Hunza apricot trees in Pakistan are usually grown from seed. In North America, it is more common to buy two- to three-year-old plants from a nursery. They are planted in late winter or early spring, which may be from late January to early May, depending on climate.

Sunlight

Hunza apricots in Pakistan are mostly found in narrow mountain valleys. They grow well as long as they have half a day of full sun. Full sun with late afternoon shade is ideal.

Fertilizing

In the Hunza valley, Hunza apricots are fertilized with manure. You may want to use tiny amounts of 21-0-0 ammonium nitrate fertilizer, about an ounce per tree once or twice a year. In their native growing region, these trees grow in soil weathered from rocks from the Himalayas. You won’t be able to duplicate those minerals with fertilizer, but diluted seaweed sprays may help.

Pruning

When you are getting a Hunza apricot tree you buy from a nursery 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.

The first year, Hunza 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

Hot summer days coupled with hot summer nights can cause “pit rot,” brown fruit around the pit. Apricot trees are at risk for fungal diseases when they are blooming. Hunza apricots also get bacterial diseases in the fall that can be prevented by spraying them with copper.

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. Furrow irrigation is OK, as long as you don’t allow water to stand.

General Rules for Taking Care of Hunza Apricot Trees at Home

Home fruit grower will get the best results with Hunza apricots 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.
  • Part of the extraordinary nutritional value of Hunza apricots grown in Pakistan derives from the harsh conditions in which they grow. You don’t want to try to emulate those conditions. Although it is true that your Hunza apricots will 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 Hunza 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 Hunza Apricots

Drying Hunza Apricots
drying apricots in natural method, Hunza valley, Pakistan

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

The second most common way to enjoy a Hunza apricot is in its dried form. The Hunza people start their day with a spoon of honey, nuts, porridge, and dried apricots. This breakfast may be repeated for lunch. 

Inventive North American cooks could use dried Hunza apricots to make:scones, coffee cakes, strudels, and salads with nuts and wild rice. Hunza apricot kernels can be dried and toasted for eating as a snack, but consume them in moderation. There are slight amounts of a chemical called amygdalin in the kernels which should not be consumed in excess. An ounce (30 grams) once or twice a week is OK.

Health Benefits of Hunza Apricots

Both fresh and dried Hunza apricots are a good source of beta-carotene, alpha-carotene, lutein, and cryptoxanthin. The plant generates these antioxidant compounds to help the fruit protect itself against sun damage, which is why they appear in the apricot.

Hunza 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 Hunza apricot tree results in a much more nutritious fruit. But since you have other sources of vitamins and antioxidants in your diet, you may opt for more watering and more fruit.

Where Do You Buy Hunza Apricot Trees?

A few nurseries in the United States sell Hunza apricots as a specialty fruit. If you live in California, you will have to buy your fruit trees from a nursery in California, but most other states permit the importation of the trees across their state lines.

If you’re looking to buy apricot trees online, check out Nature Hills Nursery.

Where To Buy Hunza Apricots

Dried Hunza apricots may appear occasionally in markets serving Pakistani immigrant populations. You may be able to obtain them as samples when they are harvested at the few nurseries that sell the trees.

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