The Barefoot Herbalogist: Prunus Armeniaca

by Dave Jones on September 5, 2011

in The Barefoot Herbalogist

Herbalogic's Barefoot Herbalist on Apricots

Herbalogic Resident Herb Nerd, Dave, continues his exploration of the everyday plants and their place in the TCM pharmacopoeia. This time his studies take us to the produce aisle of the grocery store.

This blog series is called the Barefoot Herbalist as an obvious nod to the barefoot doctors of China but also because so often when we walk around there are herbs right under our feet and in front of our faces. Today I want to focus on a plant that produces a powerful herb and a tasty fruit that made up a couple of the trees in the small orchard on the ranch I was watching this summer. That fruit is the apricot.

The Latin name for apricots is Prunus Armeniaca which just means Armenian plum and it is thought that Armenia is where the apricot as we know it began being cultivated about 3000 BCE.  This delicious fruit is technically classified as a drupe or hard stone fruit and it shares a genus with many common food plants

  • Peaches (prunus persica)
  • Nectarines (prunus nucipersica)
  • Almonds (prunus amygdalus dulcis)
  • Sour Cherries (prunus cerasus)
  • Sweet Cherries (prunus avium)
  • Plums (prunus domistica)

Here is a fun question that might win you a bar bet: Which of the following would biologists consider a true nut?

a) Walnut …… b) Acorn…… c) Pecan…… d) Almond

The answer is b) Acorn. All the other answers are technically the seeds of “drupes.” In nuts, the ovary develops into a hard shell that usually contains only one seed and that shell does not open (indehiscent). Drupes have a hard stone covering for the seed and a fleshy or leathery fruit. We have pecans growing all over central Texas and most people around here are very familiar with that leathery coating covering their lawns in the fall.

Now that you are not buying the next round because of your nut knowledge, you might ask what does this have to do with herbs?  When you eat an apricot, you throw the hard stone away, right?  Yeah, what are you going to do with it, plant it? No, it goes in the trash which means you have likely never cracked an apricot stone open. Because why would you? The amount of energy that would go into cracking it open just to reveal the kernel just so you could say, “yep, there is something in there,” would be a reward way out of proportion to the effort. It probably took me 10 minutes with a dremel to get that thing open. But there on the inside is the part considered a traditional Chinese herb — Xing Ren 杏仁 — which translates as nothing more colorful than “apricot seed.”

It has two main uses in Traditional Chinese Medicine, the first is to arrest wheezing and coughing and the second is to lubricate the bowels because of constipation.

For all the good these apricot kernels can do for your wheezing or your plugged-up bum, in general it is not a good idea to eat them as a snack. When they are prescribed properly, they are safe, but in any monograph about Xing Ren you will see that they are mildly toxic.

Mildly toxic may seem a curious term. Toxicity is generally considered pretty black and white. Things like bleach and sulfuric acid are toxic which is why I don’t drink them. Mildly toxic sounds like it would just make you sick but not kill you- but that is not the case.

Apricot kernels contain a chemical called amygdalin and when amygdalin combines with gastric juices one of the things that it breaks down into is hydrogen cyanide. So, I know what you are thinking, hydrogen cyanide sounds really bad and if you were thinking that, you would be right, mostly. The levels of this byproduct are small and they are metabolized and excreted quickly when apricot kernels are used properly.

Occasionally you will hear folks say that apricot kernels contain a chemical called laetrile. Laetrile is the trade name for a synthetic compound that is based on and very similar to amygdalin. It was first isolated in 1830 and was originally used as a meat preservative before being marketed as a cancer cure in the 1950s. As of 2006 the medical consensus seems to give laetrile the big thumbs down as a cancer treatment.  One thing for sure is that there is no laetrile in apricot kernels.

So there you have it. The next trip to the grocery store when you see apricots, you will know that deep inside that fleshy fruit is a storied and important part of traditional herbal medicine that for most people is safely locked away inside a hard stone.

TLDR — Apricots have a seed that can kill you if you eat too many. But when used properly, they are quite effective.

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