Wild apricot (Armeniaca vulgaris)
Classified as Endangered (EN) on the IUCN Red List (1).
Apricot trees are well known for their delicious fruits, and while cultivated varieties are commonly grown worldwide, their wild ancestor is now rare and in danger of extinction (1). The wild apricot is a small tree, usually between five to eight metres in height, with a crown shape that varies from spherical to oblong. The bark darkens with age, changing from reddish-brown to brown on the branches, and becoming greyish-brown on the trunk, with vertical splits appearing as the trunk grows and expands. Throughout much of the year the wild apricot presents an array of vibrant colours. In the spring, before the appearance of the leaves, the tree’s winter buds blossom into a magnificent display of delicate white or pink flowers (2). In summer, the wild apricot bears numerous orange, ovoid fruits, generally smaller than that of the domestic varieties, clustered amongst its roundish, broad, green leaves (3). Apricot fruits are technically classified as drupes (2), a term describing any fruit with a fleshy outer layer enclosing a hard woody “stone” which contains a single seed (4).
The wild apricot is found in western China, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan (1).
The wild apricot occupies shrubland or sparse forests on the slopes of valleys and mountains, up to elevations of 3,000 metres (1) (2).
Wild apricot pollination is carried out by bees and insects, which are attracted to the abundant blossoms produced during March and April (2) (5). The fruits mature between June and July (2), eventually dropping to the ground, where the highly nutritious flesh and seeds provide an important food source for animals such as large field mice (Apodemus peninsulae), Chinese white-bellied rats (Niviventor confucianus) and David’s rock squirrels (Sciurotamias davidianus). Many of these species transport the seeds to underground winter food caches, which facilitates the dispersal of the wild apricot, since any uneaten seeds may go on to germinate and produce new trees (6).
Although its origins are believed to be central Asia, it remains unclear exactly when and where the first domestic cultivation of the wild apricot began. Certainly, by 100 B.C. it had been introduced into the Near East, expanding into much of Europe over the following centuries (7). Its fruits provide a valuable source of food, and its seeds have traditionally been used medicinally and as flavouring (3). Despite their nutritious content, the seeds of wild and domestic apricots contain varying amounts of a chemical which, when ingested, breaks down into the highly toxic hydrocyanic acid. While some controversial claims have been made that apricot seeds have anti-cancer properties, on a number of occasions excessive consumption has caused severe illness and even death (8).
The Endangered wild apricot faces numerous threats to its survival. A combination of overexploitation as a fuel wood, and clearance for urban development—particularly tourist resorts—is rapidly diminishing the population of this already rare species (1). The problem is compounded by the fact that overgrazing, along with overharvesting of its fruit and seeds for food and by plant breeding companies, are reducing the wild apricot’s reproductive success and preventing it from having any chance of recovery (1) (5).
In 1984, the Chinese government listed the wild apricot in the Ily Valley as an Endangered Plant, and since then a number of studies have been carried out examining its ecology (5) (6). At the present time, however, there do not appear to be any practical measures directed towards protecting this species or restoring its populations in China. In contrast, in Kazakhstan, where the wild apricot is particularly rare, the “In-situ Conservation of Kazakhstan’s Mountain Agrobiodiversity” project has targeted two large sites in the Tien Shan Mountains for National Park status. Once these have been established, the project’s stakeholders plan to initiate a variety of innovative conservation strategies to preserve and restore the sites’ wild apricot populations, as well as other native wild fruit trees (9).
To learn more about wild apricot conservation in Kazakhstan visit:
United Nations Development Program in Kazakhstan:
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- Pollination: the transfer of pollen grains from the stamen (male part of a flower) to the stigma (female part of a flower) of a flowering plant. This usually leads to fertilisation, the development of seeds and, eventually, a new plant.
IUCN Red List (November, 2008)
Gu, C., Li, C., Lu, L., Jiang, S., Alexander, C., Bartholomew, B., Brach, A.R., Boufford, D.E., Ikeda, H., Ohba, H., Robertson, K.R. and Spongberg, S.A. (2003) Flora of China. Volume 9: Rosaceae. Missouri Botanical Garden, St. Louis. Available at:
- Janick J. (1998) Horticultural Reviews: Volume 22. Wiley-Interscience, U.K..
- Walker, P.M.B. (1989) Chambers Biology Dictionary. W & R Chambers, Edinburgh.
- Tian-Ming, H., Xue-Sen, C., Zheng, X., Jiang-Sheng, G., Pei-Jun, L., Wen, L., Qing, L. and Yan, W. (2007) Using SSR markers to determine the population genetic structure of wild apricot (Prunus armeniaca L.) in the Ily Valley of West China. Genetic Resources and Crop Evolution, 54: 563 - 572.
- Ji-Qia, L. and Zhi-Bina, Z. (2004) Effects of habitat and season on removal and hoarding of seeds of wild apricot (Prunus armeniaca) by small rodents. Acta Oecologica, 26: 247 - 254.
- Zohary, D. and Hopf, M. (2000) Domestication of Plants in the Old World: The Origin and Spread of Cultivated Plants in West Asia, Europe, and the Nile Valley. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
- Duke, J.A. and Bogenschutz-Godwin, M.J. (2002) Handbook of Medicinal Herbs. CRC Press, London.
United Nations Development Program in Kazakhstan (November, 2008)