A Bit About Nomenclature

The Orchard Gnomon : Filtering The Crackle And Buzz About Fruit Growing

A Bit About Nomenclature

We frequently get inquiries about authenticity:   “I’ve tried everyone else’s variety … do you have the real thing ?”

We like to think that the very fact that The Arboreum Company grows a variety, makes it the real thing. But humility aside, there is a problem with the vocabulary that must be dealt with first.

When speaking of certain of the most famous fruit varieties, it is necessary to clarify that it is not a single, but a whole complex of varying fruit plants, all together comprising varieties in a true sense, that pass as one.

Take for instance, the great ‘French Prune’ of Santa Clara Valley. French prunes were introduced into California from the traditional home at Agen in France on several occasions during the nineteenth century. This small purple plum used for drying has the habit of spontaneous bud mutation, so that collection of grafting scions from any tree may result in propagation of more than one distinguishable variety, or cultivar. Add to this the frequent occurrence, in areas of traditional culture, of seedlings grown from and more or less resembling a mother type, and it can be seen why there is no single, true ‘French Prune’ anywhere in California. All are approximations to a Platonic ideal Petite Prune d’Agen, which itself may no longer exist in its homeland.

The French national experiment station at Grande-Ferrade, near Bordeaux, attempted an encyclopedic collection of these different prunes of Agen, and assembled some thousand of such clones. The one most often grown in France now, numbered 707 at Grande-Ferrade, had no corresponding equivalent in California. So no one should be so foolish as to speak of   the   ‘French Prune,’ either in France or in California, for such a thing does not exist.

But wait … it gets even more interesting. Consider the famous apricot of this region. Is it Blenheim? Or Royal? Or Royal Blenheim? There is a variety of French origin that has been grown under the name ‘Royal’ since 1815. We grow it. There is a very different variety of English origin, grown under the name ‘Blenheim’ since 1836, or thereabouts.   We grow it too. They are as distinct and as easily distinguished as any two fruits in our orchard, yet I know no one else who can describe the essential differences between them. ‘Royal Blenheim’ is an absurdity, at best a nurseryman’s fudge and at worst a misrepresentation of goods.

‘Royal’ is a wedge-shaped, slightly flattened fruit with soft and juicy but decidedly mealy flesh, not adapted to commercial canning because the outer edge of the fruit, opposite the suture, softens early and bruises during handling in bulk. It was grown largely in Los Angeles County up to the 1940s and was universally known there. As a result, just about any luscious apricot resembling it came to be called ‘Royal’ among Southern Californians. Fruits of ‘Royal’ have a very compressed base and narrow stem cavity, and only a light brushing of pink on the shoulder.

‘Blenheim’ (strictly speaking, ‘Shipley’s Blenheim’) is a shorter, blocky-round fruit with a pronounced “nose” at its extremity, and flesh that does not become uniformly soft, indeed it is quite delicious while still firm, even at that stage rendering juice when crushed in the mouth. It has a rounded base, frequently cracked, and well-exposed fruits can show large and brilliant red maculations. Because it remained firm, especially when handled in cannery lug boxes, it was the variety of choice for commercial canners. And so it was the classic apricot of Santa Clara Valley.

By the beginning of the twentieth century, nurserymen in California had adopted one or another of the several named bud mutations of ‘Royal’ and ‘Blenheim’ that had been observed in commercial orchards. These were noted for earlier or later ripening or greater productivity. We still grow the original ‘Luxembourg Royal’ and ‘Shipley’s Blenheim,’ but also the ‘Losse Blenheim,’ ‘Steindorf Blenheim,’ ‘Early Blenheim’ (Canadian White), ‘Autumn Royal,’ and ‘Redsweet,’ a red Blenheim.

In the apricot planting boom during the Great War of 1914-1918, nurseries sold out their inventories of ‘Blenheim’ apricots, and substituted ‘Royal’ to the unsuspecting public … they both ripened about the same date, and had comparable flavor. So began the confusion of the two varieties. Eventually, California nurseries quit distinguishing between the two, and many today (not us!) propagate their ‘Royals’ and ‘Blenheims’ from the same tree, without apology. Trees headed for Southern California are labeled and invoiced as ‘Royal.’ Those for Northern California are labeled and invoiced as ‘Blenheim.’ Beware anything labeled ‘Royal Blenheim’!

All of our varieties are grown and fruited to test for authenticity, long before we offer them to our public. Most everything we offer, we have grown for many years, and are quite possibly more familiar with more varieties of fruits than any other business or institution in the fruit trade.

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