BY Rika Z. Vayianni

| Feb 18, 2016


A Lesson Taught in Almonds

As Japan has its cherry blossoms, in Greece the blossoming of the almond tree heralds Spring.

Spring arrived at our home, always on a cold winter Saturday, in the form of a huge but delicate bouquet of almond tree branches. My father entered the apartment and offered the new blossoms to our delighted mother who immediately arranged them in a sturdy, oversized glass vase she kept especially for the occasion.


“Let the season begin.” they would lovingly say to each other.

Then, I could not exactly make the  connection between the coming of Spring and almond blossoms. It was usually still freezing cold outside when the bouquet made its appearance at our house, way too early for a small child to notice any visible seasonal changes.

Only later, at school, we were taught that almond trees in Greece were the first out of all the other trees to blossom. Sometimes, during a brief break of mild weather, usually after the New Year, the almond trees were fooled into a dangerously premature flowering. Then, the unavoidable icy wave of a winter storm would fall upon the oh-so-sensitively blossoming branches and burn them hard and barren.

It was during those seasons that my father got a little bit anxious and my mother a little bit sad: they knew that, come February, the almond blossoms at the florist shop would be scarce and way too expensive for my father to afford a full bouquet. We had to make do with a couple, or maybe only one branch; no impressive glass vase to hold them, but some other elegant container that tried to pass our slim pickings for a semblance of a minimalist decorational approach.

Ιt was probably because of this family ritual that I grew up very aware of the almond trees in the streets and gardens in Athens. I kept my eyes high, striving to locate the first tiny buds in their branches, trying to figure out if they would actually make it through the lasting winter. Sometimes they did, and sometimes they did not, but the first almond blossoms, even when seen through snow, sludge and frost, always meant one thing:

It was time to bring up the subject of spring, to let the Season begin.


Almonds are more than a tradition in Greece ‒ they are a dietary staple, as historic as it gets.  Unfortunately, no ancient God sponsored the almond tree, as Athena did with her beloved olive or fiery Dionysus with his vineyards.

Still, our motherland is as much an almond country as it is an olive or grape territory: wild, cultivated, raw, bitter, roasted, mashed, milked, almonds are everywhere. They make a perfect, ultra-healthy and satisfying snack all by themselves, but one can find them in recipes for salads, desserts, drinks, even medicines prescribed by Hippocrates, the father of medical science.

They even make an excellent, fast-acting and absolutely lethal poison if one needs to get rid of a few enemies swiftly and inexpensively.

But back to the beautiful innocent blossoms. The Gods of Ancient Greece may have mysteriously forgotten to acknowledge the almonds, (despite the fact that the most fruitful and spectacular trees grow in the Great Plain of Thessaly, under the gaze of Mount Olympus). However, the almond branches and especially their delicate flowers inspired a latter generation of artists.

Greeks now honor both blossom and fruit with a full hand of poems, songs, paintings, even famous film snippets that celebrate this gift of the land. Through a series of artistic interpretations, an almond tree in full bloom stands as a discreet symbol of romantic love, fragility, frivolity, or a reminder of the crushing melancholy of an ethereal, short-lived  beauty.

Most of all, the almond blossom heralds the coming of Spring; it holds the promise of longer, sweeter days and comfortable walks in the city and the countryside. Sometimes, busy, preoccupied, winter-clad Athenians will stop and stare at a couple of tourists in shorts and sandals, strolling the streets of downtown Kolonaki, or the chic suburb of Kifissia. For a moment the locals will shudder at the sight of the tourists’ premature exposure to the elements ‒ “Don’t you people feel the cold?”

Then, our eyes will look up. Directly above the unsuspecting travelers’ heads, an almond tree has started to blossom towards a still grey and overcast February sky.

And we will wonder no more.

Look. The almond branches have blossomed.

Let the Season begin.