The apricot is a small tree, 8–12 m (26–39 ft) tall, with a trunk up to 40 cm (16 in) in diameter and a dense, spreading canopy. The leaves are ovate, 5–9 cm (2.0–3.5 in) long and 4–8 cm (1.6–3.1 in) wide, with a rounded base, a pointed tip and a finely serrated margin. The flowers are 2–4.5 cm (0.8–1.8 in) in diameter, with five white to pinkish petals; they are produced singly or in pairs in early spring before the leaves. The fruit is a drupe similar to a small peach, 1.5–2.5 cm (0.6–1.0 in) diameter (larger in some modern cultivars), from yellow to orange, often tinged red on the side most exposed to the sun; its surface can be smooth (botanically described as: glabrous) or velvety with very short hairs (botanically: pubescent). The flesh is usually firm and not very juicy. Its taste can range from sweet to tart. The single seed is enclosed in a hard, stony shell, often called a "stone", with a grainy, smooth texture except for three ridges running down one side.

Although the apricot is native to a continental climate region with cold winters, it can grow in Mediterranean climates if enough cool winter weather allows a proper dormancy. A dry climate is good for fruit maturation. The tree is slightly more cold-hardy than the peach, tolerating winter temperatures as cold as −30 °C (−22 °F) or lower if healthy. A limiting factor in apricot culture is spring frosts: They tend to flower very early (in early March in western Europe), meaning spring frost can kill the flowers. Furthermore, the trees are sensitive to temperature changes during the winter season. In China, winters can be very cold, but temperatures tend to be more stable than in Europe and especially North America, where large temperature swings can occur in winter. Hybridisation with the closely related Prunus sibirica (Siberian apricot; hardy to −50 °C (−58 °F) but with less palatable fruit) offers options for breeding more cold-tolerant plants.

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