The almond belongs to the genus Prunus made up of 430 species of trees and shrubs including plums, cherries, peaches, nectarines and apricots. It is most closely related to peaches. Almonds (Prunus dulcis syn. Prunus amygdalus) are native to the Middle East and South Asia dating back thousands of years ago when it was spread to northern Asia and Africa, and southern Europe. In more recent times the trees have been introduced into California. Almonds are small deciduous trees growing up to thirty-three feet tall and are known for their flowers as well as its fruit. The pale pink to white flowers appear in early spring before the leaves have emerged and are 1-2 inches across. The leaves are three to five inches long.
Thersites, a slave in Troilus and Cressida (act v, sc 2, 193), comments to the audience;
Patroclus will give me
anything for the intelligence of this whore [Cresida]; the parrot will not
do more for an almond than he for a commodious drab [whore].
In Shakespear’s day “an almond for a parrot” was used to express the greatest temptation that a man could face. Probably introduced into England by the ancient Romans, the almond was commonly grown in English gardens in Shakespeare’s day. The 17th century herbalist Gerard that “we have plenty of them in our London gardens and orchards in great plenty.” He further notes that almonds are used to make concoctions to treat a variety of ills including fevers, headaches, coughs and shortness of breath. The oil was used both to relieve pain and sooth and clean the skin while five to six whole almonds taken while fasting could prevent drunkenness.
In addition to its usefulness, the almond was valued for its symbolism. In Christianity almond branches were used as a symbol of both Mary and the Virgin Birth of Jesus. The almond is mentioned ten times in the Bible. In Genesis 43:11 it is included as one of “the best fruits of the land” along with honey, spices, myrrah, and nuts. Other biblical references associate the almond with old age ( Ecclesiastes 12:5), Aaron’s rod (Numbers 17) and the menorah ( Exodus 25:33–34; 37:19–20).