The Northern Areas of Pakistan, defined in general terms, cover the districts of Gilgit, Diamer, Ghizer, Ghanche and Skardu. Nature has endowed the area with high peaks and large glaciers concentrated in a relatively small radius. Each district can boast of at least one lofty peak. K-2 with a height of 8,611 m (28, 416 ft) lies majestically in Skardu district overlooking the Chinese territory. Nanga Parbat, 8, 138 m (26,855 ft) high, is located in Diamer whereas the 7,788 m (25,700 ft) high Rakaposhi is situated in Gilgit. Some 28 peaks of the area are over 20,000 ft high.
Whereas Diamer does not have any glacier worth mentioning, Gilgit, Skardu and Ghanche offer some formidable glaciers like Biafo, Baltoro and Siachin which is 72 km long and the largest in the world outside the poles. Geo-politically it is the most sensitive area of Pakistan. It touches Sinkiang in the north and Afghanistan in the northwest with Tajikistan close behind. On the southern side there is a stretch of over 300 miles long ceasefire line with Indian-held Kashmir and Ladakh. With the opening of the Karakoram Highway, the Northern Areas have acquired additional strategic and political importance. The area is spread over 72,496 sq. km., approximately the size of the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, with a present population of nearly 800,000 and a low density of 8 persons per sq. km., living in some 650 small villages.
There are eight ethnic groups, viz; Baltis, Yashkuns, Moghal, Kashmiries, Pathans, Laddakis and Turks speaking eight different languages namely Shina, Balti, Brushiski, Khawar, Wakhi, Urdu, Pushto, and Farsi. The four major religious sects are Sunnies, Shias, Ismailies and Noorbukshies. Sunnies are mostly in Daimer and Gilgit districts. The majority of Shias are in Skardu and Ghanche districts. The Ismalies are mostly in Ghizer district and in Hunza sub-division of Gilgit district.
Livelihood in northern mountains of Pakistan is largely subsistence oriented. Hence household level agriculture i.e. small scale crop cultivation to produce cereals mainly wheat, fodder crops for livestock, orchards etc. and animal production remains the biggest support to household economy. Fifty percent of the respondents were dependent on only household agriculture (HHA). Second largest category of them (42%) was supporting livelihood employment along with HHA, although off farm employment opportunities in Hindu Kush Himalayan (HKH) belt of Pakistan is quite limited. Family members do seek employment in the plains of Pakistan. Small fraction of respondents (6%) was engaged in local level micro enterprise like retail shops called business in addition to HHA. Only two percent of the respondents were farmers as well as daily waged laborers.
Apricot as cash crop
In Northern Area, apricots along with other deciduous fruits are primarily produced as cash crop where majority of families grow apricot. Average household had 28 trees of which 9 were bearing fruits and producing 750 kg of apricot per anum (GOP, 1989). The practice of planting seeds from the best trees over an extended period of time has resulted in an incredible amount of variation. Many years ago, the farmers did learn to graft so now hence, in each village in addition to seedling trees, one would find many favorite local cultivars. Distribution of favorite cultivars remained uneven because some existed in only one village and others were widely distributed but primarily within the confines of each former kingdom. In several villages survey showed 180 different cultivars as a sample of variation that existed in the region. It had reported 31 local cultivars in district Ghangche of Baltistan. Overall, good quality apricot fruits were characterized as very high in soluble solids and sweet kernels with relatively small size. Fruit size was not important selection criterion.
Apricots are by far the single largest livelihood source with immediate commercial potential for a significant proportion of population in Northern Area although farmers have yet to realize its’ full potential. 40% of the rural households would annually earn between Rs.5000 – 6000 from apricot and its by-product in Northern Area. A farmer would often have as few as two or three trees of the same cultivar mixed with other. Therefore grading becomes the main problem.
Apricot as fresh and dry fruit
In Hunza, one of the larger fruited cultivars had outstanding quality for both fresh as well as dry use, with high soluble solids, pronounced aroma, and rich flavor. ‘Alishah Kakas’ was another favorite in Hunza because of its exceptionally high soluble solids, fine quality and firm texture making it suitable for shipping fresh and excellent for drying. In Baltistan, ‘Margulam’ was prized as a fresh fruit for its juiciness, sweetness, and fine flavor, whereas ‘Halmon’ was the best for drying due to its high soluble solids and rapid drying characteristic. ‘Kachachuli’ was unique too, although the fruit had relatively high soluble solids, the flesh reaches a moderate degree of firmness and did not soften further with age hence, its’ local name actually said, ‘apricot that doesn’t ripen’. ‘Kachachuli’ is grown mainly for its large edible seed. A local storage cultivar was said to hold its quality until March once stored underground as per indigenous practices.
Farmers own a variety of fruit plants including apricot, apples, almond, pear, cherry, walnut etc. Fruits have mainly been produced to meet annual family needs for dry fruit particularly during severe winter. Among all respondents 86% ranked apricot as their most preferred fruit tree. Because apricot would meet most of their subsistence needs. Dried apricot and kernels are main dry fruits for winter. Most fuel wood is obtained from apricot trees. Oil from kernels is obtained for various domestic uses. Cracked kernel shells are also used as fuel. Figure 2 indicated that the second preferred fruit plant was apple (10%).
Varieties of Apricot
There is considerable scope to introduce new cultivars with extended shelf life and successive ripening sequence over the season to extend the apricot marketing down to big commercial centers of plains. It is reported that about 60 apricot varieties in Northern Area where Halman, Karfo chuli, Marghulam and Shara karfa were the prime. Most apricot cultivars blossom in early March. The blossoming time is about a fortnight and may be prolonged or shortened by the presence or absence of cold spell. Considerable variation is also shown by different cultivars in their blossoming habits. The incidence of frost during March is common and considerable damage to apricot crop is annually experienced.
Origin and history of Apricot cultivation
The apricot is believed to have originated in China, where it has been cultivated for over 4,000 years. It has also been grown in India and Tibet from time immemorial. The Hunzas, who live in the Himalayan Mountains of northern Pakistan and are known for their vitality and longevity, have cultivated and valued this fruit for its health-building virtue’s for over 1,500 years. It was regarded as a food medicine by Greek physicians, while the Romans dedicated it to Venus, the goddess of love. It was introduced in Europe during the time of Alexander, the Great. In the Middle East, apricots were very popular for their taste as well as for their invigorating perfume.
The center of diversity of the apricot is northeastern China near the Russian border (in the Great Wall area). From there it spread west throughout central Asia. Cultivation in China dates back 3000 years. The Romans introduced apricots to Europe in 70-60 BC through Greece and Italy. Apricots probably moved to the U.S. through English settlers on the East Coast, and Spanish Missionaries in California. For much of their history of cultivation, apricots were grown from seedlings, and few improved cultivars existed until the nineteenth century. Cultivars vary among countries, and in Turkey, Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Syria, a great deal of the production is from seedling orchards. Cultivation in the USA was confined to frost-free sites along the Pacific slope of California, due to early bloom but relatively high chilling requirement, and fungal disease problems in humid climates. Now, most of the production in California is in the San Joaquin valley.
Through centuries, as humans moved from Central Asia into Karakoram and Himalayan mountain valleys of Northern Areas of Pakistan, they brought apricots with them to these regions where apricot trees were commonly grown from seed. As a traditional selection process, the fruit was evaluated as soon as a tree started fruit bearing and the inferior quality fruit trees were budded to good local cultivars. However, a seedling tree bearing good quality fruit would not be budded and was often given a name.
Adaptive measure: Apricot as main staple food for isolated mini-kingdoms
With the passage of time, apricot was very well adapted and became abundant all over the arid inner mountain valleys at elevations from about 1200 m to 2900 m. Among these extremely high, precipitous mountains characterized with very small river valleys, there were several former mini-kingdoms, completely isolated from each other as well as from the outside world until very recently. For them, apricot was a main staple food, providing fresh fruit throughout summer, dried fruit and edible kernels for winter, oil from bitter seeds for lamps, and firewood in this relatively treeless land.
Apricot in India & Pakistan
In Indo-Pakistan apricots were probably introduced from Iran and Afghanistan (Gina). In Pakistan, apricot is being grown in the uplands of Baluchistan province, Parachinar, Hangu, Chitral, Swat, Hazara and Diamer districts of Khyber Phatunkhwa, Pothwar and Murree Hills in Punjab, northern Kashmir and Gilgit, Chilas and Baltistan in Northern Areas.
Taxonomy of Apricot
Apricot, Prunus armeniaca L., is a member of the Rosaceae family, along with apple, pear, peach, and other stone fruits. The apricot is found in the Prunophora subgenus within Prunus along with plums. Hybrids between plums and apricots have been produced recently which are said to be finer fruits than either parent. A “Plumcot” is 50% plum, 50% apricot; an “Aprium” is 75% apricot, 25% plum; and the most popular hybrid, the “Pluot” is 75% plum, 25% apricot. The apricot is one of the most important fruits. It belongs to the sub acid class. It is somewhat cid in its raw state, but its acidity decreases and the sugar content increases in the process of ripening. The fruit is regarded as a nutritious and tonic food and enjoys world wide popularity. The apricot is a stone fruit and has nut within it. It is round or oblong in shape, flattened to some extent. It is similar in shape as peach, but is considerably smaller. It is yellowish in color. The fruit which ripens on the tree alone develops its true flavors which are very much like that of the peach.