There are two kinds of people in the world: Those who swoon over the aroma and flavor of a ripe peach and those who have never tasted one. A lot of people don't even realize they've never actually tasted a ripe peach. The peaches you buy in the supermarket have often been picked green, shipped, and are lacking in taste. But a truly fresh peach is one you won't soon forget.
Peaches should be a symbol for eating local, as a peach at its prime is too delicate to ship. A peach, tree-ripened until it practically picks itself, is soft with fuzzy skin and heavy with juice, its skin streaked and dappled in shades of gold, orange, red, and maroon. The warm fragrance alone is a showstopper, intoxicatingly sweet, and that first bite always delivers. Then you get into the desserts: Sliced peaches with yogurt or over ice cream, doused with heavy cream, or maybe a bowlful sprinkled with just a little sugar. Peach pie is a subject all its own, including no-bake glaze-coated fresh peach pie with whipped cream, baked peach pie with a flaky crust, and baked dried-peach pie. Throw in peach cobbler for good measure. And let's not forget home-canned peaches, whole, halved, or sliced, and spiced if you like. Or peach butter, jelly, and jam. Peaches can be pressed for cider, and even distilled into brandy.
For most Americans, finding a local source for peaches isn't too difficult. There are peach varieties that will grow from Zone 4 to Zone 8. Most orchards devote large stretches of acreage to peach trees, and many offer pick-your-own programs. Peach season runs from mid-July through August. In season, most orchard stands offer fresh peaches in batches ranging from pints to half-bushels. There will probably also be a basket or two of "seconds." These are the ripest peaches you can get, and the ones you want to take home with you. Sure, some of them may have a few bruises, and you'll need to use them before the week is out, but I guarantee you will not find a better tasting peach.
A home for your peach tree
Should you choose to try your hand at peach culture, you'll need to consider variety, location, pruning form, insect and disease pressures, spray schedules, and orchard cleanup. There are more than 300 varieties of peaches available in the United States, some better suited for Southern orchards, and others for Northern climates. Talk to your local state extension office for advice tailored to your climate and conditions.
Once you've selected your variety, take some time to find the best place to plant it. Select a spot in full sun, on the south side of a slope, about midway between the crest and the valley. This placement allows cold air to drain away from your tree on frosty spring nights, while sheltering it from drying winter winds. More peach crops are lost to winterkill and late frosts than to any other problem. It also helps provide better soil drainage, as peaches cannot tolerate "wet feet." They do best in sandy loam rich in organic matter.
After your tree has grown a year, it's time to think about pruning methods. Peaches respond best to an open-center form of four or five main (scaffold) branches arranged like a vase or wine goblet on a 3-foot trunk. This allows sunlight and air to reach all parts of the tree. Your peach tree will need to be pruned heavily each year, just before or during bud break. Remove all dead, damaged, or broken branches, followed by any criss-crossing branches, and those growing straight up. Old-timers like to say you should be able to "pitch a cat through a properly pruned tree, never hitting a branch." (It goes without saying that method of testing should not be employed.) While unpruned trees can reach 15 to 20 feet in height, proper pruning can keep them at a manageable 8 to 10 feet.
Protecting your peaches
Your peach tree should begin setting fruit after three years, and live for eight to 15 years, before disease and insect pressures overwhelm it. It seems that everything loves peaches, especially in the East. Peach diseases include brown rot, peach leaf curl, peach scab, bacterial spot, and powdery mildew. Peach tree borers, stink bugs, tarnished plant bugs, plum curculios, and Oriental fruit moths are just some of the insect pests that target peaches. Both disease and insect pests can usually be kept under control with an IPM-based (Integrated Pest Management) spray schedule. Talk to your state extension agent for recommendations. Be sure to remove all diseased fruit each fall. Leaving them in your orchard provides a haven for diseases and insect pests.
A healthy peach tree will set far more fruit than it can successfully ripen, and will need to be thinned in late spring after the natural thinning, called the "June drop." Once the fruit are the size of a large marble, remove excess fruit, leaving 6 to 8 inches between each peach on a branch. This allows enough room for each fruit to grow, and assures enough resources to properly ripen all of them.
A healthy harvest
Ripe peaches must be hand-picked to avoid bruising or outright splattering. Gently grasp each peach, lift, and gently twist. A ripe peach will slip easily, while a green one will remain tight. A dead-ripe peach will fall into your hand with little effort. The peaches on any given tree will ripen over a long season, some faster, others slower. Once picked, they require careful handling, again to prevent bruises and splatters. Plus, the clock is ticking; a ripe peach's shelf life is measured in days, not weeks. Think about that the next time you're looking at supermarket peaches in December.
Peaches come in two different types: clingstone and cling-free. The flesh of clingstone peaches is securely attached to the pit or "stone" in the center of a peach. No matter how hard you try to gnaw the flesh from a clingstone, you'll never get the stone clean. Cling-free peaches, on the other hand, surrender their stones easily, often with a simple knife cut around the peach and a quick twist and pull, separating the halves.
Peaches can have white flesh, yellow flesh, or red flesh. White-fleshed varieties tend toward milder flavor, while yellow and red peaches are more acidic and complex in flavor. Yellow peaches are the most common, and most commonly canned, while white peaches are usually for fresh eating. Red peaches are almost never seen in commercial plantings, and rarely found in stores. Most are descendants of wild or 'Indian' peaches. Nectarines are just "naked" peaches with one genetic switch turned off.
A fuzzy history
Peaches have been around for a very long time. Fossilized peach pits have been found in Southwestern China. These 2-million-year-old stones are nearly identical to modern cultivated peaches, just a bit smaller. While the peach's close relative, the almond, traveled west along the Silk Road to the Mediterranean regions at the dawn of civilization, the peach traveled east. There, the Chinese and Japanese began cultivating it as early as 6000 B.C., and ancient Chinese kings and emperors treasured it for its reputation for promoting long life and good fortune.
By 300 B.C., it had reversed course, traveling back across the Silk Road to the Middle East. Alexander the Great carried peaches into Greece, and they later spread to Rome by the first century A.D. In a quirky twist, early botanists believed Persia to be the birthplace of the peach, even naming it Prunus persica, or the "Persian plum."
That would not be the last bit of confusion about peach origins. Peaches arrived in the New World before they reached England. Portuguese explorers carried peach pits to South America, and Spaniards took them to North America where they established orchards in the American Southwest and La Florida, reaching into present-day Georgia, Alabama, and South Carolina. It didn't take long for Native Americans to plant orchards of their own, and trade peach pits with neighboring tribal governments, spreading them across the continent. By the time English settlers reached the Mid-Atlantic states, they discovered "Indian orchards" and wild peaches growing widespread across what would become Virginia, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey, even reaching into present-day Canada. Early American botanists believed that peaches were New World in origin, but most of those wild trees and Indian orchards have been lost.
Like most tree fruit, peaches do not typically breed true, producing offspring different from themselves. Unlike most other tree fruit, the amount of variation is minimal. Seedling peaches from a good parent have an excellent chance at being good peaches themselves, and some older varieties like 'Indian Blood' are stable, reliably producing offspring to match their parents.
This summer, head out to your local orchard and buy a basket of peaches. Grab a big one, wipe off the fuzz, lean over, and take a bite of ambrosia.
Andrew Weidman lives and writes in Lebanon, Pennsylvania. He serves as vice president of the Backyard Fruit Growers Planning Committee, a grassroots group of fruit enthusiasts. He firmly believes the only proper way to eat a peach is leaning forward as far as possible. Or dunked in heavy cream. Or baked in a pie, or...