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Apricots are dried on a Hunza Valley rooftop.

Apricots are dried on a Hunza Valley rooftop.

On the flanks of the magnificent Karakoram mountain range, a jagged spine of 25,000-foot-high mountain spires, lies the valley of the Hunza—a place so rich in beauty and long-lived people that it is credited as an inspiration for James Hilton’s novel of utopia, Lost Horizon. At over 8,000 feet in elevation and ­physically isolated from the rest of the world, it’s not a typical ­agricultural paradise, yet the rich ­volcanic soils and abundant water have made it one of Pakistan’s most productive agricultural regions and the ancestral home of a unique ­apricot.

The Hunza people first terraced the valley’s steep slopes a thousand years ago to make farming possible and to control the runoff from mountain-born storms. They have coexisted with the region’s ­breathtaking beauty and natural hardships ever since.

Of the crops grown there, nothing compares in importance to the production of the native apricot, a late-season variety that has both the sweetness and acidity that makes an exceptional fruit. Following ­harvest, wide baskets of halved apricots are everywhere, drying on rooftops, massive stone ledges—any ­horizontal surface not needed for other purposes. And the ­delicious, but hard-to-chew dried fruit remains a staple in the Hunza diet throughout the winter.

Breeding new cultivars

It is this flavorful apricot that has been the focus of two decades of work by California breeder Dr. Craig Ledbetter, a USDA geneticist in the San Joaquin Valley—a flat, hot valley as different from the Hunza as one might imagine.

Recognized as a world leader for his work with apricots, ­Ledbetter has had two specific goals in his research, first to increase the fruit-ripening season for grower profitability and second to make certain that apricots bred to extend the season are also sugar:acid balanced to meet consumer preferences. The sweet-tart, late-­maturing Hunza seemed to him to be the perfect parent to achieve both goals in any new cultivars.

Although Ledbetter had never visited northern Pakistan before he began his current breeding program, other USDA-ARS scientists had collected apricot germplasm from the Hunza Valley and made the breeding material available to him. Ledbetter then set to work crossbreeding the small Hunza apricot with larger, if blander, California ­cultivars. That was in 1993.

During the almost 20 years of research since, there is yet to be a named cultivar with Hunza parentage: Plant breeding takes time. There have been, however, successes in significantly increasing the fruit-ripening period, and many apricot accessions now have high Brix:acid ratios resulting from the program’s efforts.

Ledbetter’s team of scientists is in the final stages of evaluation of one apricot that ripens at the end of June (in Parlier, ­California) that has excellent eating characteristics. It has self-compatibility (like its ­California parent) and can be used fresh or dried, ripening very late (from the Hunza germplasm) as compared to existing California ­cultivars. This apricot is in grower trials to see how well it performs as a commercial variety, but is not yet available to consumers in any ­significant number.

Of all of the new cultivars currently being studied by ­Ledbetter, the one that is most exciting to him is a new, clean-white–fleshed apricot that stands out from its popular yellow-orange cousins. It attains an attractive red blush on the sun-exposed skin surface like the orange ­cultivars, but has greater contrast, making it a novel and attractive fruit.

“Upon first bite, it has made many fans,” said Ledbetter, “and when picked at commercial ripeness, the fruit eat well with a good balance of sweet and sour.”

But fresh product is not its only potential, he explained.

“As the fruit soften a bit, the flesh becomes very perfumy and the sugar intensifies. The fruit hold on the tree well beyond the ripeness required for fresh marketing, and can then be ­harvested and cut for a premium dried product.”

Consumers may have a while to wait before any of the Hunza ­cultivars are named and released for commercial production, but the effort being made in the San Joaquin by Ledbetter and his team likely will produce apricots fit for the Shangri-La of their origin.