Origins of a Nut

By Christopher Zoukis

There are two primary types of almonds:  sweet almonds and bitter almonds.  Sweet almonds are the nuts people like to eat, appearing in salads, cereals and candy bars.  Bitter almonds are grown for their oil, which is used as a flavoring and as a base in cosmetic products.  Bitter almonds, as the name suggests, are bitter in taste.  This is the result of amygdalin, which is a glycoside that breaks down to form prussic acid.  When bitter almonds are processed for their oil, the prussic acid or cyanide is removed so the oil can be used for flavoring.  Image courtesy

No one knows for sure where almonds originated.  One theory states that almonds evolved in Asia and came from the same primitive stock as the peach.  The peach moved eastward into China, where it flourished at lower elevations with high humidity.  Whereas the almond moved in the opposite direction, moving westerly on the edges of the deserts and mountain slopes to the Mediterranean basin. 

Almonds make numerous appearances in the Bible.  When the patriarch Jacob found himself living in the middle of a worldwide famine (circa 1500 B.C.), he ordered his sons down to Egypt.  There they were to buy grain from the Pharaoh.  Jacob, being a cagey businessman, knew that providing the Pharaoh with a gift might ensure the success of the trip.  In his younger days, Jacob had been a smooth operator, and he knew how the world worked.  So he instructed his eleven sons to put together a package of luxury items:  “balm, and a little honey, spices, and myrrh, pistachio nuts and almonds.”[1]  The sons did so and made the long journey to Egypt, where, unbeknownst to them, their baby brother Joseph was still alive.  Not only was Joseph alive, he was now the second most powerful man in Egypt.  The little dreamer the brothers had despised and sold into slavery years ago stood between them and starvation.  The fact that almonds were included in the gift, along with myrrh, which was extremely valuable in the ancient world, meant almonds were still considered a potent and valuable delicacy in Egypt.

The next Biblical appearance of almonds took place after the Exodus from Egypt, when a bald Hebrew by the name of Korah led a revolt against Moses and Aaron.  Korah was jealous of the status and power of Moses and Aaron.  So Korah made a power grab.  He and his followers rebelled and established themselves as the high priests.  As the rebels prepared to offer up incense, the wrath of God fell upon them.  The ground beneath their feet opened up, swallowing them up in flames.  To make sure another such revolt didn’t take place Moses commanded the leader of each of the twelve tribes to write his name on rod.  The rods were placed in the tabernacle in front of the Ark.  The next morning the rods were examined.  Aaron’s rod had put forth buds, blossoms, and ripe almonds.  This was a sign from God that Aaron and the tribe of Levi was the priestly line.  Aaron’s rod that budded was placed inside the Ark, along with the Tables of the Law.  In effect, there was now something holy about almonds.

Some historians speculate that after the untimely death of Alexander the Great, as his armies made their way back to Greece, they carried almonds with them.  This explains how almonds arrived in the Mediterranean.  The Greek botanist Theophrasutus mentioned almonds in his writings, circa 300 B.C.  And later, Cato called almonds the “Greek nut,” circa 200 B.C. 


[1] Genesis 43:11ff.