The history of almonds

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History of Almonds

The origin of the almonds

The almond originated in Southwest Asia (Iran), and testimony to the existence of the tree and fruit goes back at least 5,000 years.

Almonds were brought to the Middle East by the Nabateans who traded in spices from the region. In Biblical times, the almond was ubiquitous and mentioned on numerous occasions, even if not counted among the Seven Species.

In the 7th century BCE, when the Kingdom of Carthage was at its zenith, almonds were introduced by its traders into North Africa.

In 450 BCE, with the conquest of Western Asia by Alexander the Great, almonds were also brought to Greece, the center of its empire being on the Turkish side.

Later, with the rise of the Roman Empire, almonds were also brought to the rest of the northern Mediterranean states.

In the era of the world explorers, Columbus first and foremost, the almond found its way to the Americas. First to South America, and only at the end of the 17th century, to the United States.

The first trees were planted in the San Diego area; and in 1860, planting shifted to the San Joaquin Valley in the San Francisco area.

This marked the beginning of a success story on a global scale.

Today, the San Joaquin Valley is home to half a million hectares of almond tree plantations supplying one million tons of kernels a year, or 85% of global production.

Apart from California's San Joaquin Valley, almond tree plantations do not exist anywhere else in United States.

Development of the almond industry in the Land of Israel

As aforesaid, in all likelihood, almonds arrived in the Land of Israel in pre-biblical times, and were grown here with ups and downs throughout all the historical epochs ever since.

The almond is mentioned in the Bible in various contexts, the first account being of the children of Jacob bringing a gift of the best fruits of the land to their brother Joseph: a little balm and a little honey, gum, ladanum, nuts and almonds. (Genesis 43:11)

Later, the rod of Aaron is mentioned as bringing forth buds and almond flowers.

The branches of the candelabrum were also adorned with the almond fruit.

The almond industry reached its pinnacle in the Land of Israel in the times of the Mishna, already then amounting to tens of thousands of Dunam (10 Dunam=1 hectare), but from the Middle Ages to the Turkish rule, the almond culture declined sharply, remaining only in groves and on small plots of land.

With the Return to Zion movement and settlement in the farming communities (Moshavot) sponsored by the Baron de Rothschild, vines were planted and a winery established in Rishon Lezion.

Very soon, however, the Grape phylloxera pest attacked the vines, obliging the Baron's agronomists to seek a substitute for the grape wine industry.

They decided on extensive planting of almond trees, especially in the farming communities of the North where the climate is better suited to the crop, and in this way the industry reached its zenith in 1914:

3,700 hectares in the Jewish sector, and another 300 hectares in the Arab sector.

In that period, an experimental station was established at Poriya, and local varieties developed.

A pest emerged in that year (that continues to this very day), which effectively destroyed the industry in the Jewish sector.

Almond growing was reintroduced in the Jewish sector upon the return of Geva Group member Daniel Raz from California in the mid-1960s.

Daniel was deeply influenced by the industry's development in California, and brought knowledge and new growing methods with him to Israel that boosted yields and the economic viability of the industry.

The end of the 1980s saw a slowdown in plantings, and even uprooting, marking a decline in the Arab sector as well.

The turning point was the introduction of almond/peach hybrid stocks imported to Israel from France years before by Professor Rafi Assaf.

The breakthrough began with the initial success of them taking root and later propagating them in tissue culture.

The use of these stocks combined with intensified irrigation led to a jump in yields and to the creation of an economically viable and competitive industry in field crops that make extensive use of mechanization and reduce the need for working hands.

Historical legends and sources

The common almond tree grew in the Land of Israel in ancient times, and is even mentioned several times in the Bible.

The children of Israel (Jacob) took with them to Egypt "the best fruits of the land..., gum, ladanum, nuts and almonds" (Genesis 43:11).

The rod of Aaron blossomed as a sign from God "... and brought forth buds, and blossomed, and yielded almonds: (Numbers 17:23) (1400 BCE).

Some Jewish communities bring blossoming branches of the almond tree to the synagogue during the religious spring holidays as a reminder of the biblical rod that sprouted almond flowers.

The prophet Jeremiah also saw an almond rod as a symbol of swift fulfillment: "for I will hasten my word to perform it" (Jeremiah 1:11-12). The almond is also mentioned in the Mishnah and Talmud on numerous occasions.

From the Mishnah we learn that the almond was important at the time as an edible fruit, as well as for producing oil and for medical and heating purposes. For heating, use was made of bitter or blemished almond shells.

The Romans were also familiar with the medicinal properties of the almond (first century CE) as a painkiller. In Roman times, it was also customary to announce a wedding by handing out almonds as a gift.

This might also be the origin of the tradition of the tribute made by the bride and groom to the guests: Bonbons de mariage, a Jewish custom in which sugar-coated almonds are handed out as a gift (dragée).

The almond tree was domesticated from the wild and already well-known in the third millennium BCE.

The fruit of the almond tree was used as food, oil and in the cosmetics industry, as well as for medicinal purposes and for embalming the dead in Egypt.

In the 6th and 7th centuries CE, there is evidence of almond growing in Morocco, Spain, Greece and Israel, and finding its way to China via the Silk Road.

The 19th century saw the United States grow almonds that came from Spain.

The almond required a period of agricultural adaptation and study and subsequent breeding.

At the same time, here, at the end of the 19th century, with the commencement of Aliya to Israel, and encouraged by the officials of the Baron de Rothschild, the farming communities (Moshavot) began to plant almond orchards on a commercial scale.

Disease and pests wiped out the industry at the beginning of the 20th century.

Years of efforts to improve stocks and find varieties, plus local research, as well as modern efforts to tackle disease and pests, put the industry back on a commercial track that has gained its rightful place in the Israeli landscape.

The industry is expanding from year to year with a high-quality and very tasty almond fruit that has become an integral part of the Israeli diet.

In Jewish tradition, almonds have had an important role on the traditional Tu Bishvat [Trees' New Year, usually in January] festive platter.

The custom may have originated in the cold countries of Europe where fresh fruit was not to be found for the Tu Bishvat festival. They were even marked on the platter by their Hebrew initials: Tav Shin Beth Chet Tav: Tav Tmarim=dates, Shin Shkedim=almonds, Beth Bananas, Chet Charuvim=Carobs, and Tav Te'enim= figs.

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