Botanists call a cross between two or more plants an interspecific, and that’s what pluots and apriums are. Both are part plum and part apricot, but of course it’s way more involved than that. They are “complex crosses,” says Ed Laivo, marketing manager for the Dave Wilson Nursery, the exclusive U.S. distributor of both fruits. That means they are the product of dozens of generations of crossing plums, apricots, and other plum-apricot hybrids to get just the right combination of flavors and textures. Because the two fruits are in the same genus (Prunus, which also includes cherries, peaches, and almonds) it’s easier to cross a plum with an apricot than with, say, a banana.
It’s impossible to identify what exact percentages of plum and apricot are in each (though many online sources try), but a pluot is more plum than apricot and has a smooth, plumlike skin, while an aprium is more apricot than plum and has a fuzzy, apricotlike skin. To complicate things even more, there are many varieties of each fruit that are colored and shaped differently, and ripen at different speeds.
Pluots and apriums are relatively new fruits, having been introduced to the market in the mid-’80s, Laivo says. So who’s responsible for these newfangled fruits? Floyd Zaiger. The prolific farmer-geneticist got his start in the early 1950s creating new varieties of azalea but soon got into fruit breeding, and apprenticed under Fred Anderson, who created the first commercially successful variety of nectarine. In the following decades, Zaiger patented more than 100 fruit varieties, including new types of white peaches and cherries, and of course pluots and apriums, all through hand pollination, not genetic modification.
Both Zaiger and Anderson owe their careers to Luther Burbank, the father of scientific plant breeding. Burbank invented hundreds of new kinds of flowers and fruits in his lifetime, including the Russet Burbank potato, used to make McDonald’s (and most other fast-food joints’) fries. He also created the plumcot, a half plum/half apricot that Zaiger used in creating pluots and apriums. Burbank’s work was so influential that it inspired the passage of the Plant Patent Act in 1930, four years after his death. The law protects new varieties of plants, and is the reason you have to buy seedlings from the Dave Wilson Nursery (which has first right of refusal on all of Floyd Zaiger’s creations) if you want to start a pluot or aprium orchard. The Plant Patent Act led to other laws allowing the patenting of genes in genetically modified plants, a subject that is much more controversial.