The Cultivation of Almond Trees in our country has an ancient tradition. It’s a tree crop originally from Central Asia, which was introduced to Sicily by the Phoenicians in ancient times. From Italy, it then spread to all Mediterranean countries, particularly Spain and France. The Spaniards were the ones to bring almond trees to America, precisely in the 16th century. The United States, especially California, is currently the world’s leading producer. In our country, almonds can be cultivated at any latitude, although the southern regions (especially Sicily and Puglia) record the presence of the largest number of almond orchards.
Almond tree cultivation can bring great satisfaction even with a few cultivated trees. This plant is very generous and rustic. Therefore, cultivating almonds is possible even on a small scale, in a family orchard. We will explain the necessary precautions and correct techniques in this article today.
Botanical Classification of Almond Trees
The almond tree is a tree species belonging to the botanical family Rosaceae, subfamily Prunoideae. Further scientific classification identifies the different species. Currently, the sweet almond, Prunus dulcis, is distinguished from the bitter almond, Amygdalus communis or Prunus amygdalus. Other authors divide the species Prunus dulcis into other subspecies, which vary according to the characteristics of the fruits. So, we have:
- Prunus dulcis var. sativa, which includes most cultivated varieties. The seed is sweet, and the endocarp is hard.
- Prunus dulcis var. amara, with bitter fruits due to the presence of a bitter substance, amygdalin.
- Prunus dulcis var. fragilis, which includes varieties with sweet seed and fragile endocarp.
Regardless of the different botanical names, we can affirm that almond tree cultivation is one of the oldest practices carried out by humans. Traces of it have been found as far back as the early Bronze Age, from 3000 to 2000 B.C. The plant is mentioned in the writings of the Assyrians and Babylonians, the earliest known civilizations. Almond remains were found in the tomb of the famous Egyptian pharaoh Tutankhamun, attesting to how well the Egyptians knew and appreciated this fruit. Because of its high nutritional value and its ability to preserve over time, they had decided to import it, probably from the East.
Characteristics of the Almond Tree
The almond tree is very long-lived and can easily live over a century. It usually starts producing fruit from the fifth year onwards, reaching maximum productivity after 20-50 years. It’s a medium-sized tree that doesn’t exceed 10 meters in height. Its root system is extensive and can occupy a space up to 3-4 times larger than the crown. The roots, even in difficult soils, can reach a depth of one meter or more. This characteristic allows it to be cultivated even in poor and difficult soils, of little value for other crops. The trunk, in the first years of life, is smooth and straight, with a light gray color. As years go by, the shape becomes more contorted, the surface becomes cracked, and the color turns dark gray. The branching is dense, tending towards gray-brown.
The almond tree bears fruit on the branches of the year and on clusters in May. The branches of the current year bear both flower buds and wood buds. The leaves are deciduous and lanceolate in shape, with serrated margins and over 10 cm long. They are shiny on the upper side and more opaque on the lower side. They have an intense green color and are very similar to those of the peach tree.
The almond tree is one of the trees that bloom earliest in nature. Depending on the variety, the first blossoms occur in February, even before the leaves appear on the tree. The flowering is abundant and ornamental. The flowers have a white-pink color, are hermaphroditic, and consist of 5 petals. Most of the varieties are self-sterile, with phenomena of self-incompatibility. For this reason, in almond tree cultivation, it’s necessary to plant different compatible cultivars. The presence of pollinators is essential, somewhat similar to the fig tree. The pollination is entomophilous, meaning it’s carried out by bees and other pollinating insects. Often, to improve pollination, beehives are placed in the midst of flowering almond trees. This creates a mutual exchange: the bees assist in pollination, and the tree provides them with pollen during a time of year when other flowers are scarce.
The fruits of almond tree cultivation are, of course, almonds. These are oval or elongated drupes, composed of a green and fleshy hull, usually hairy but sometimes smooth. The hull encases the shell, called the endocarp, which is woody and pitted. The shell can be hard or fragile. Inside the shell are the edible seeds (almonds), covered with a thin reddish-brown skin (seed coat). This seed is composed of two white cotyledons fused together, containing a significant amount of oil. Almonds mature from late August through the entire month of September. When maturity occurs, the hull becomes leathery and opens, dropping the shell. Therefore, the fruits are collected as they fall. To facilitate the harvest, it’s advisable to place nets like these under the tree, which will collect the fruits and avoid contact with the soil. Subsequently, the almonds must be spread out in the sun to complete drying and to be stored later. It is good practice to harvest the fruits as soon as they fall from the tree. Leaving them on the ground for many days would expose them to the risk of molding or the proliferation of parasitic molds.
Almond Tree Reproduction
The almond tree is mainly propagated through seeds (sexual reproduction) or grafting (vegetative reproduction).
The use of seeds is still a widely used technique, capable of growing healthy and vigorous trees. This method has allowed the preservation of local varieties over time.
Seeds are also used to produce rootstocks, the most commonly used for vegetative propagation in home orchards.
The seed rootstock is obtained from both sweet and bitter almonds. It can adapt to difficult and very arid soils. Moreover, it has excellent graft compatibility with different varieties, giving rise to vigorous and long-lived almond trees.
Other common rootstocks include:
- GF 677, the most used in large almond orchards. It adapts well to various types of soil except very clayey ones. It can be used in both irrigated and dry cultivation. It induces strong vigor, rapid entry into production, and high productivity.
- PS A6, this rootstock is simply a seedling of peach. It’s a vigorous rootstock that ensures rapid entry into production. However, it is less resistant to drought and more susceptible to diseases, so it’s used only in irrigated almond orchards.
The choice of variety is of great importance in almond cultivation. This choice is based on various factors, with two key ones being the timing of flowering and the fertility of the flowers.
Let’s take a look at the main varieties:
- Tuono. A variety with medium-late and self-fertile flowering, with high production. The almond is sweet and tasty, of good size (4-5 g).
- Falsa Barese. It has a late and self-fertile flowering, with high and consistent production. It is harvested in the third decade of September. However, it has the drawback of producing unattractive almonds.
- Fascionello. This variety has medium-early and self-sterile flowering. Pollinators are Ne Plus Ultra or Pizzuta d’Avola. It also has moderate productivity and is harvested in the first decade of September.
- Pizzuta d’Avola, with early and self-sterile flowering. The pollinator is the Fascionello variety. Medium-low productivity, harvested in the first decade of September. Very tasty almonds with an attractive appearance.
- Genco. It has late and self-fertile flowering, high and consistent production. Harvested at the end of September.
- Ferragnes. With medium-late and self-sterile flowering. Pollinators are: Falsa Barese, Genco, Tuono, and Ferraduel. High productivity, harvested in the first part of September. Produces almonds of excellent size and shape.
- Ferraduel. A variety with late and self-sterile flowering. The pollinator is the Ferragnes variety. High productivity and very cold-resistant.
- Filippo Ceo, with late and self-fertile flowering. High and consistent production, harvested in early September. This variety is suitable for almond flour and paste production (available here) or in these shops).
- Fra Giulio Grande. Medium and self-sterile flowering. Pollinators are the Ferraduel or Ferragnes varieties. Harvested in the first decade of September. Medium productivity.
Almond Tree Cultivation
The almond tree is grown from north to south in our country, although it prefers the Mediterranean climate. The issue of cultivation zone can be observed with early-flowering varieties. These varieties suffer from frost and strong cold winds, which inevitably damage flowering. Ideally, hilly areas are suitable for almond cultivation, where there is good ventilation and fewer frost events.
In general, it is a cultivar that tolerates drought and excessive excessive heat, but it dislikes excessive moisture. In colder regions, it’s advisable to plant the tree in a sunny spot sheltered from winds.
Soil and Irrigation
The ideal soil for almond cultivation is loamy, reasonably fertile, and slightly chalky. However, as we’ve seen, it’s a hardy tree that can adapt even to arid and poor soils. What it dislikes are compact, clayey, and moist soils.
As mentioned, it tolerates drought well, doesn’t require irrigation, and is satisfied with natural precipitation. However, an extended period of hot and dry weather can lead to seed dehydration, resulting in “monk almonds”. In such cases, it’s advisable to provide emergency irrigation. The choice of rootstock also influences this factor; for example, the seedling rootstock from peach is less suitable for non-irrigated cultivation.
Planting, Training Shape, and Plant Spacing
Planting a young almond tree is done in autumn or late winter. The most common training shape in home orchards is the vase shape, with a medium scaffold. This shape follows the natural growth of the tree, allowing 3-4 main branches to develop, starting from 70-80 cm above the ground (scaffold). The planting spacing averages 6×6, meaning 6 meters between rows and plants. These distances can be reduced by choosing less vigorous rootstocks.
Almond tree cultivation doesn’t require excessive use of organic fertilization. A good basal fertilization with mature manure should be done at planting and every 2 years. If you don’t have manure, you can also use the result of home composting or worm humus. The fertilization operation is carried out in late winter, before the full vegetative recovery.
In organic almond cultivation, proper soil management is crucial. In this regard, non-tillage and inter-row vegetation are common techniques in organic almond orchards. During the first 2 years after planting, the soil is worked. Starting from the third year, an herbaceous crop is sown or spontaneous herbs are allowed to grow. After the herbs have gone to seed, the herb cover is mowed very low to obtain a clean ground cover, facilitating end-of-summer harvesting operations.
Pruning Almond Trees
Pruning almond trees is done in February and March, following the general pruning guidelines. It’s a tree that doesn’t require drastic and continuous interventions since it flowers on one-year-old branches and doesn’t need regular pruning. In the year following planting, it’s advisable to let the tree grow naturally. In the following years, to maintain the tree’s harmonious shape, it’s sufficient to trim the more vigorous branches slightly, those protruding from the silhouette, and remove small branches crossing inside the canopy.
Pests and Diseases
The almond tree is a very hardy plant that doesn’t particularly suffer from pest attacks. This is especially true for the fruits, which are protected by the hull and strong shell. Using inter-row vegetation also promotes biodiversity and the presence of natural predators of harmful insects. In general, almond tree pests are similar to those of the peach tree, which we discussed in a previous post, to which we refer.