Nothing says ‘summer’ like a ripe peach, but where did this delicious fruit come from, and how has it come to be so ‘American’, when it’s roots can be traced back to ancient China? It’s a fascinating story, as rich in history as the peach is rich in flavors, and a story that tells us so much about the way our food is deeply entwined with our past. Let’s take a look at this turbulent history. . .
The Origins of the Peach
Peach trees grow wild in northwestern China, and there is evidence that it was being cultivated as early as 6,000 B.C. along the Yangtze river. It was certainly written about by 1,000 A.D. and was grown as much for its blossoms as for the fruit. Still today China and peaches go together – they are the world’s biggest producer by far, growing more than 10 times the peaches of the USA (Italy is the world’s second biggest producer, but still dwarfed by China).
Like many other plants from China, the peach first came to Europe along the ancient Silk Road, probably as twigs carefully wrapped to keep them alive, and carried on the back of a camel or mule. They became established first if Persia (modern Iran), and were known in Europe as ‘Persian apples’ when they first arrived there. That idea still persists in their botanical name, Prunus persica.
The Peach Crosses the Atlantic
They say that history belongs to the winners, and that could explain why we instinctively look to the northeast and the early English settlers for our history. But the south and west were Spanish for centuries, and it was the early conquistadores who first brought the peach to America. All the way back in 1539, Hernando de Soto landed with an army of 600 men near what is today Tampa Bay, Florida. They explored and fought their way through the southeast, leaving behind what have been described as our first invasive species. It was normally for ships to carry food, often still alive, and hogs were released by the Spanish, quickly spreading throughout the South. The second ‘invasive species’ they introduced was the peach, planting peach stones as if they were Johnny Appleseed.
We should also mention that it may not have been specifically Hernando de Soto, but those early Spaniards also introduced the diseases that spread though Native American tribes, decimating their numbers and unintentionally making later settlement so much easier – the lands were largely empty when other European arrived.
The wild peaches still found growing in the South today may or may not be directly descended from de Soto’s, but it’s possible. The Spanish missionaries who soon followed the conquerors recorded that they brought peaches too, and they were being grown in Georgia by 1571. As they spread Native Americans quickly realized their value as food. Before long they were planting them around their villages, and spread the habit to other villages along their trade routes. Soon they were common throughout the South and in the northeast. William Penn tells us that in 1683 they were widely grown in today’s Pennsylvania.
But Who Had it First?
As we might expect, the alternative narrative of the English colonists claims their introduction much later, They had some trouble explaining why the trees were so abundant when they arrived, assuming at first that they grew naturally, and later suggesting that Native Americans got them from early settlers in Carolina. They also often dismissed the idea that it was de Soto, claiming that the areas he travelled in were ‘not suitable’ for them to take hold. Many early settlers praised their abundance, diversity of varieties, and their quality, often superior to those in England, so it’s hard to take seriously claims that, for example, the English colonist George Minifie planted the first peach at his home in Virginia sometime after 1623. By that time they were abundant in many of the natural woodlands around the colonies.
It is no surprise that Thomas Jefferson planted peaches – among many other fruits – at Monticello in 1768, but it was the late 19th century before they were recognizes as a commercial crop in Delaware, Georgia, Maryland, and Virginia. Today California produces about half of all the peaches grown commercially in America, with South Carolina next, followed by Georgia. Most of the crop is processed into everything from canned peaches to yoghurts, pies and even beer (yes, it’s true), while peach oil is popular in beauty products.
Where Have All Those Peach Trees Gone?
Much of the reason for the rapid spread of peach trees in those early years was their ability to act as colonizing species. The settlers cleared vast acreages of forest, much faster than they could start growing crops on it. Along with native plants like sumac, peach trees quickly spread into cleared land or abandoned fields. Within a few years they form a dense covering – nature abhors a vacuum – and as early as 1709 farmers were writing of them as weeds that needed careful clearing to make the land usable. In many areas peach trees were so abundant, and so prolific with their bounty, that they were fed to Hernando de Soto’s other alien – hogs.
The complex agricultural systems, including peach orchards, of tribes like the Seneca, Cayuga, and Oneida, was, however, to come to an end. In 1779 George Washington send soldiers to destroy their lands around the Finger Lakes, as punishment for siding with the British in the Revolution. The soldiers were amazed at the level of agriculture, and the vast orchards – but they destroyed them anyway.
Next came pests and diseases. It took a while for some local insects – the plum curculio and peach tree borer, and local diseases (peach yellows) – to adapt to this new food source, but by the early 19th century they had. Orchards were destroyed, and the wild plants too, which is why you won’t find many wild peaches growing in the east anymore. With them went varieties that had been developed, such as giant peaches that were more than a foot around. There are still wild peaches in some states, but they are just a fragment of that older abundance.
The Modern Peach Industry Begins
During the 19th century agriculture moved from a subsistence, feed your family and neighbors activity into something larger and more commercial. To support that meant more uniformity and better pest and disease resistance. By the middle of that century commercial orchards were being developed. One of the first ‘modern’ varieties was ‘Elberta’, developed in the 1870s by Samuel Henry Rumph, and still grown today. It became the basis of the Georgia peach industry, and between 1889 and 1924 orchards grew by 5 times over. States began to support scientific breeding programs, and the industry was ‘boosted’ with peach fairs and town events.
In California, it was the Transcontinental Railway (1869) that got the peach industry growing, and the development of canning in 1895 made it possible to grow far more fruit than could be sold and consumed in the short season of ripeness. Better growing technique meant that while yields in the 1920s were 3 or 4 tons per acre, today they are more like 20 tons per acre. Today it is the shift to organic methods of growing, and greater respect for the environment, that is the challenge for peach growers, but just as they did in the past they will certainly rise to that challenge, and we won’t be seeing the end of the peach in America any day soon.