Biogeography of natural occurrences of almond trees. The genus Amygdalus is very common in Iran and Afghanistan and throughout the Turco-Iranian area. Iran and Anatolia were the center in which its various species evolved and from which they were diffused. It is probably now represented in Iran by nine species, several endemic (Zohary, 1973, p. 373). Most often they have the form of small, thorny bushes (sub-genus lycioides, whose diversification appears to have begun in Iran) or of taller, tree-like shrubs which grow in colonies (sub-genus spartioides). The last examples of the latter are the colonies of Amygdalus scoparia on the southwestern flank of the Zagros. Also widespread is the sub-genus eu-Amygdalus, to which the cultivated almond tree (Amygdalus communis L.) belongs, the commonest wild species being the Amygdalus orientalis and the Amygdalus korschinskii. Several of these species enter into most plant associations in the arid interior of Iran and Afghanistan. They are found as underbrush in the oak woodlands of the Zagros, the dry juniper forest on the southern slopes of the Alborz and the Khorasan mountains, and even in the semi-humid forest of the Qaradāḡ, as well as in low-lying (garmsīr) districts. Stands of Amygdalus spartioides in association with pistachio trees are particularly widespread in the interior basins of Iran, where they form the dominant element of the vegetational cover in wooded steppe areas between forest and true steppe. This pistachio-almond association (termed “Junipero-Pistacietea” by M. Zohary, “Bergmandel-Pistazien Baumflur” by H. Bobek) has its lower limit at 700 m around Herat and the Harīrūd valley in eastern Khorasan, 1,100-1,200 m east of the Dašt-e Kavīr, 1,300 m around the Lūt, 1,500 m in the Sarḥadd of Baluchistan; its upper limit is ca. 2,500 m in central Kūhestān east of the Lūt, ca. 3,000 m on the flanks of the Kūh-e Taftān, ca. 3,000-3,200 m in the Kermān mountains. The maximum width of this belt corresponds to the isohyets of 150-300 m annual rainfall.
Human use of almonds and almond trees. The Amygdalus communis (or Prunus amygdalus), though undoubtedly native to the Iranian land-mass, is seldom found in natural stands there today. Indeed it is possible that the descriptions of wild types may be based on specimens of the cultivated type which have reverted to nature. The sweet-fruited variety is certainly a mutant of the bitter-fruited variety, developed by grafting of the latter onto many different wild species, in particular the closely related Amygdalus korschinskii. In any case, almonds were already important in Iranian agriculture and diet in ancient times. Strabo (11.13.11) states that the Medes made a sort of bread out of roasted almonds. Together with pistachio nuts, acorns, and wild pears, almonds must have formed part of the diet of the young Persians whose initiation into manhood was a spell of open-air life in the wooded steppe (Strabo, 15.3.18). A prescribed quantity of dried sweet almonds had to be delivered daily for the table of the Persian kings (Polyaenus, Strategica 4.32). In the Pahlavi literature, there is a mention of these wholesome nuts in chapter 27 of the Bundahišn. They still play an important part in Iranian and Afghan arboriculture and diet. Cultivated almond trees are found up to the altitude of 2,365 m in the mountains of Afghanistan. In Iran the average annual production in the 1970s was reckoned to be 50,000 tons; for Afghanistan no trustworthy figures are available, but estimates of the country’s annual exports (mainly to India) in the 1950s ranged from 2,500 to 4,000 tons.
In addition to its value as a food source, the almond tree has had other uses in Iranian daily life. Thus it used to be peeled and pounded and its oil extracted by pressing the resulting paste in one’s fists. The oil was used as a laxative like that of castor beans (kaṛčak). The wood of the wild almond (particularly Amygdalus scoparii) is reputed to make the best charcoal and to be excellent firewood (Schlimmer). In the nineteenth century walking sticks made from the wood of the Amygdalus orientalis were very fashionable. Mollās in Afghanistan often carry an almond-wood wand as a sort of amulet. The wood is also used to make handles of whips for defending oneself against snakes (Aitchison). In Iran an eye-shaped gold or silver object, called a bādāma, is attached to an infant’s bonnet to ward off the evil eye.
J. E. T. Aitchison, “Notes to Assist in a Further Knowledge of the Products of Western Afghanistan and of North-Eastern Persia,” Transactions of the Botanical Society, Edinburgh, 1891, pp. 1-223 (esp. p. 164).
H. Bobek, Die natürlichen Wälder und Gehölzfluren Irans, Bonner Geographische Abhandlungen 8, Bonn, 1951, esp. pp. 34-37.
J. Humlum, La géographie de l’Afghanistan, Copenhagen, 1959, pp. 185, 187-88, 347.
S. Kitamura, Flora of Afghanistan, Kyoto, 1960, p. 177.
B. Laufer, Sino-Iranica, Field Museum of Natural History, Publication 201, Anthropological Series, XV, 3, Chicago, 1919, pp. 193, 405-09.
H. Massé, Croyances et coutumes persanes, 2 vols., Paris, 1937.
J. L. Schlimmer, Terminologie médico-pharmaceutique et anthropologique française-persane, Tehran, 1874 (lithograph), repr. Tehran, 1970, pp. 32-33.
N. Vavilov and D. D. Bukinich, Zemledel’cheskiĭ Afganistan, Leningrad, 1929, pp. 225, 455-57.
M. Zohary, “On the Geobotanical Structure of Iran,” Bulletin of the Research Council of Israel, Section D, Botany, vol. II D, Supplement, March, 1963, passim, esp. pp. 35-38.
Idem, Geobotanical Foundations of the Middle East, 2 vols., Stuttgart and Amsterdam, 1973, pp. 373-74, 585-88, 629.
(X. de Planhol)
Almonds are consumed both fresh and, more commonly, dried. In the early spring, when the nut is young and tender fresh fuzzy, green almonds, called čaḡāla-bādām are crunchy and edible. They are sold by vendors on street corners, after having been dipped in salted water. They are also cooked into a stewed lamb dish, ḵorešt-e čaḡāla-bādām, an infrequent delicacy, since the almonds are edible in this form for only a very short time each year. This dish incorporates chunks of sautéed lamb with finely chopped mint and parsley. It is flavored with sour-grape juice, simmered slowly for several hours, and served with rice.
Dried almonds are served frequently between meals, roasted, salted, and mixed with shelled hazelnuts and pistachios, and unshelled pumpkin and watermelon seeds. This mixture is called ājīl.
Dried almonds are used extensively in Persian cuisine, particularly to embellish and flavor rice dishes, such as a variation of ʿadas-polow (lentil pilaf) which calls for the addition of slivered almonds and currants or raisins. Moraṣṣaʿ-polow (jewel-studded rice), derives its name from the nuts which decorate this festive dish, including almonds, pistachios, and hazelnuts. Another popular rice dish, šīrīn-polow (sweet pilaf) is often prepared with a combination of slivered almonds and pistachios sprinkled throughout the rice, which is further flavored with sweetened orange-peel slivers and chunks of boned, cooked chicken.
Dried almonds are used extensively in preparing baked goods, such as nān-e bādāmī, a cookie made with beaten egg whites, sugar, cardamom, and ground almonds, or qoṭṭāb, an almond-filled, deep-fried cake. A popular pastry which can be prepared with almonds is bāqlavā, made with filo dough, butter, sugar, cardamom, and either coarsely ground almonds or a combination of almonds and pistachios. A popular method of flavoring the almonds is to immerse them in narcissus petals in a tightly covered tin for several days, replacing the petals with fresh ones every day until the almonds have absorbed their fragrance. A popular confection made with slivered almonds is sowhān-e ʿasalī, made with sugar, honey, butter, and almonds, and flavored with saffron.
(X. de Planhol, N. Ramazani)
Originally Published: December 15, 1988
Last Updated: August 19, 2011
This article is available in print.
Vol. III, Fasc. 4, pp. 362-363