Thursday, 11 July 2013

Taxon of the Day: Prunus dulcis

Prunus dulcis - Almond Tree

Today’s Taxon of the Day has been produced by Maria Christodoulou she writes:

Described as crazy by locals in the Mediterranean the almond tree,
Prunus dulcis (Mill.) D.A.Webb, is certainly one of the eccentrics in the region. Its early flowering times, sometimes as early as February, have made it a symbol of hope and regeneration. Being a flowering time pioneer however has its costs, with the first flowers often destroyed by frost. 

Considered one of the first nuts to be domesticated, the almond tree has a most definite dark side. The seed in its wild state produces sufficient levels of amygdalin which are transformed into cyanide when eaten. The domestication selection process, aided by the fact that it is relatively easy to grow from seed, is dated back to the Bronze Age. A low level presence of amygdalin still remains today, but it is mostly found in bitter almonds grown almost exclusively for medicinal reasons. 

The uniqueness of the almond always captured the imagination of the locals with various customs and superstitions focusing on almonds – such as presenting newlyweds with sugar coated almonds. It is unsurprising therefore that the ancient Greeks had one of the most tragic love stories created to explain the flowering of the tree, the story of Phyllis and Demophon. According to legend Phyllis, who spent years waiting for her fiancé to return from Athens, died of sorrow without seeing him again. The gods, to honour her, planted a tree that never flowered. After many years, Demophon returned and searched for her only to find a dead tree. Overwhelmed by grief he embraced the tree and suddenly, in the middle of February, it flowered.

CoL Annual Checklist: Prunus dulcis
CoL contributor: IOPI Global Plant Checklist
Image copyright: Nicolás Pérez

1 comment:

  1. A great story Maria! I always used to get sugared almonds from my grandparents at Christmas. And at school there was the shaggy dog story about sugared almonds... A young boy was sent by his parents to help the old gentleman next door who was too infirm to care for his beautiful garden anymore. Every weekend the boy would help with weeding, or pruning, or planting, or mowing the lawn. Every weekend he would talk to the old man and learn about gardening while drinking tea, or lemonade in hot weather, and eating cakes and nibbling moist soft almonds from a bowl on the coffee table. The old man would complain his false teeth did not fit well so he couldn't eat almonds anymore, even though he enjoyed them in the past. Week after week the boy learned new gardening skills and the old man's garden developed into a state even more beautiful than it had been in the past. The boy enjoyed his tea and cakes, and his reward of moist soft almonds. One week, however, after planting out the spring bedding - Begonia semperflorens, Salvia officinalis, Ageratum houstonianum and Nicotiana sylvestris (to give added height and structure) - the boy found there was no bowl of almonds on the table and the old man looked very happy. Disappointed at the lack of almonds the boy didn't know if he had done something to upset the old man - but the old man looked happier than he could ever recall. In the end the boy asked - 'why do you look so happy today and why are there no almonds?'. The old man smiled, showing an almost unbelievably fine set of brilliant white teeth, and said 'I told you I loved almonds but couldn't eat them anymore. I now have a new set of false teeth so when I get my sugared almonds each week I can eat the whole thing and not just suck the sugar off the surface!'. The young boy stopped gardening after that and took up football.
    The full version, of course, is much longer :-)