The Plumcot

l to r: My cousin Mary Peters, and a younger me, John Tranter, in the apricot tree, Kiora, Christmas 1955
l to r: My cousin Mary Peters, and a younger me, John Tranter, in the apricot tree, Kiora, Christmas 1955

We had a huge old apricot tree in our backyard that fruited generously. It was fun to climb, too.

I remember my mother telling me when I was still a child that my grandfather (or grand-uncle) was a great botanist, and that he had grown a citrus tree that had oranges on one branch, lemons on another and grapefruit on a third. That was a simple grafting trick, and lots of home gardeners had tried it over the centuries. But he also developed a plum-apricot cross he called a “plumcot”. I realised decades later that he had probably been influenced by plant breeder Luther Burbank, an American who died in 1926. He had been the first person to successfully cross plums with apricots in the late 19th century, releasing a handful of half-plum, half-apricot hybrids which he called plumcots.

Three organic apricots, two large red plumcots, photo by John Tranter
Three organic apricots, two large red plumcots, photo by John Tranter

Some sixty years passed without my ever seeing a plumcot until early in 2013, when I bought some deep red-coloured apricots (with yellow flesh) from fruiterer in Rozelle in Sydney. At least they looked like red apricots; the flavour, though, was intense, scented and exquisite, with a hint of sweet plum. Sure enough, they were plumcots (see photo).

A little searching on the Internet led me to Chip Brantley’s article in Slate magazine. He says:

Floyd Zaiger [now, in 2013, in his late eighties, born in Nebraska, raised in Iowa, resident in Modesto CA] and his breeding company, Zaiger Genetics, used Burbank’s work as a foundation for much of their own experimentation with plum-apricot hybrids. In the 1980s, they released two 50-50 plumcot varieties, Plum Parfait and Flavorella. But plumcots suffered from a bad reputation among stone-fruit growers for being tough to grow, harvest, and ship, and while Plum Parfait and Flavorella were much tastier than some of the older plumcots, they were still temperamental.

Floyd Zaiger
Floyd Zaiger

Also, as a rule, the term “plumcot” referred only to half-plum, half-apricot hybrids. So as the Zaigers began backcrossing plumcots with plums to create more complex hybrids (with varying ratios of plum to apricot), they wanted to market them with a different name — one that wouldn’t be tarnished by the notoriety of plumcots. Zaiger thus trademarked the name pluot (pronounced plew-ott) in 1990. (They renewed the trademark in 2007.)

As the Zaigers have continued to cross and backcross their increasingly complex hybrids, they’ve released dozens of pluots, each with a slightly different lineage. While it’s surely true that one variety’s family tree shakes out around 75 percent plum to 25 percent apricot (or even 60 percent and 40 percent), it’s not correct to say that all pluots are three-quarters plum and one-quarter apricot (or three-fifths and two-fifths). Best just to say that pluots are mostly plum and leave it at that.

Plout
I read in the Huffington Post that “Zaiger and his staff make repeated and complex crosses in successive generations to make a bridge between two species. Their low-tech methods are painstaking and methodical. He collects pollen with an eye shadow brush from a tree chosen for its flavor, then brushes it on the flower pistil of another tree chosen for its durability or resistance to disease. Each of the 150,000 crosses currently in the orchard has a number to trace its lineage back to its great-great-grandparents or longer.”

To my eye (at least in photographs) pluots look like plums (see photo above, of a knife cutting a Plout), with variegated colour and glossy skins. My plumcots from Rozelle look like apricots with dull red skins. They cost more than your plain old apricot, but the taste is, as they say, “redolent”. Redolent of what, you might ask. Redolent of heaven, in my book.

Read all about it on Wikipedia here.