The late private fruit breeder Fred Anderson, known as father of the modern-day nectarine, is credited with the development of yellow-fleshed nectarines in California. But he also made a mark on the apricot industry with his Patterson variety.
The variety originated from Anderson’s breeding program located in Le Grand, California, and was released in 1968 to Burchell Nursery, a California-based, wholesale nursery. It was an F2 open-pollinated seedling of Perfection, selected for testing in 1959. Anderson and Irvin Burchell, founder of Burchell Nursery, were looking to develop a canning apricot that was a regular bearer and would resist pit burning, a common ailment of the Blenheim variety, according to Irvin’s son Bill Burchell. Anderson developed four canning varieties, but the Patterson was the most successful.
Apricots in the 1960s were sought by California canneries as a way to start canning before the peach season and operate the canneries for a longer period of time.
Norman Bradford, who developed new fruit and nut varieties also in Le Grand, worked closely with Anderson for a number of decades, and eventually bought Anderson’s breeding program materials and orchards in 1981, about a year before Anderson died. Norm and his son Glen further developed Bradford Farms and Bradford Genetics, which is now BQ Genetics.
Glen recalls that the Patterson variety, which would eventually become the most important apricot in California, didn’t start out that way. “The story I remember was that after patenting the Patterson, Fred didn’t sell many trees until the Apricot Producers of California [a grower bargaining association] touted it and encouraged planting to growers,” said Glen. “Then, it really took off, and tree sales jumped to a couple hundred thousand annually.”
Glen notes that the variety was good for canning and processing and flavor was “okay,” though nothing like the newer cultivars that are being planted today.
“The Patterson has been one of the best, multipurpose apricots developed and commercialized in the apricot industry in the western United States,” said Burchell’s John Slaughter, who is director of their breeding program. The Patterson, though ideal for canning because it held its shape and color during the heating process, was also widely planted for the fresh market in California and Washington. Fruit are medium to large, with firm flesh, delicate flavor, and a freestone pit. Trees are self fertile, vigorous, and reliably productive.
Growers with processing contracts often went into their orchards early to pick the larger fruit for the fresh market before their cannery fruit were picked, Slaughter said.
Even as recently as 2007, the Patterson accounted for about 60 percent of the apricot tonnage in California and 15 percent of the fresh market production, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture statistics.
The Patterson variety was named after what is billed as the “Apricot Capital of the World”—the rural town of Patterson, California, located on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley. The town became the apricot hub—at one time producing about 40 percent of the nation’s apricots—after hundreds of apricot orchards were relocated there from the Santa Clara Valley in the 1950s.
At one time, California was the major apricot production region in North America with just under 100,000 acres. Today, apricot acreage in the Golden State has declined to around 12,000 acres due to a variety of factors—imported apricot products, decreased demand for canned fruit, and increased consumer choices for fresh fruits in the marketplace.
As the canning industry declined in the 1990s and California’s population skyrocketed, many of the apricot orchards that surrounded the town of Patterson were removed and sold for housing developments. Though the town still holds its annual Apricot Fiesta, a 41-year-old community tradition celebrating the fruit that helped build the city, now only about 5,000 acres of the delicate fruit remain in the area.
Sources for this article include: Apricot Breeding in North America: Current Status and Future Prospects, by C.A. Ledbetter, USDA, Parlier, California; USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service; The Brooks and Olmo Register of Fruit and Nut Varieties, the Apricot Producers of California, and the Patterson Apricot Fiesta and Historical Society.