In China, the peach is a special symbol for longevity. Native to China, peaches have been in cultivation there for thousands of years. Records indicate orcharding practices from 1600 B.C. and ornamental garden usage since about 500 A.D. Easy to grow from seed, they traveled the Silk Road to Persia and on into Europe by about 300 A.D. The peach tree was first introduced by settlers in Florida or on the Gulf Coast in the middle of the 16th century. They were so fast-growing and popular with Native Americans that they were spread throughout the South and naturalized to the point that early botanists thought they were native to America.
The peach became a very important crop in early American colonies. Thomas Jefferson was particularly fond of peaches and grew more than three dozen varieties at Monticello. Colonial Americans from Pennsylvania to Florida used peaches for a beverage called mobby, a cider-like juice product, and distilled it into brandy. Even the wood was used for cooking and heating. Clearly, the peach was queen in early American farms and gardens.
Growing peaches in Missouri is not for the faint of heart. The first thing that scares off novices is the need for specialty pruning. Peaches are heavy and soft, so fruiting peach trees are trained for an open vase shape to provide the strong structural support to hold the crop without breaking the branches and to keep them low to the ground for ease of harvest. The primary pruning happens the first couple of years and continues for the life of the tree. It is not hard, just different from most other pruning styles.
Plant your peaches on a hill and not on the valley floor or in other low places. They do not like wet feet or the frost pools that slip down the slopes and settle at the bottom in winter. We are near the northern limit for peaches anyway, and these stresses reduce their vigor. Water young trees well for the first few years to help them establish, and irrigate during fruit-ripening if drought conditions occur. Low moisture during fruit production can lead to reduced yield. As young trees become established, any fruit set during the first three years must be removed when tiny so the trees can concentrate energy on root growth and not fruit development. After the trees begin production, serious thinning may still be needed to allow large fruits to develop.
The Missouri Extension Service also recommends limiting the number of trees for home gardens since one healthy prime-of-life tree may produce three bushels (120 to 150 pounds) of fruit in a short seven- to 10-day harvest. If you want more than one tree, choose cultivars with staggered ripening dates so fruit doesn’t go to waste. Other factors include suitability for our growing conditions and disease resistance.
Whether you grow your own crop or buy peaches, several fruit characteristics will help you select the best varieties for your purposes. Clingstones are the earliest to ripen. With a pit that sticks to the flesh, slices must be cut away from the seed with a knife. Most clings have non-melting flesh, which is best for canning because the slices maintain their integrity through processing. Great for storing, they do not make the best juice-dripping dishes we dream of in the off-season. Melting peaches, in clingstone or freestone fruits, will tend to soften and disintegrate more and are best for luscious fresh peach shortcake where the juices can soak into the biscuit for a delectable July dessert.
Eckert’s is Open
For those of us who are fans of fresh, sun-warmed, tree-ripened peaches, those picked green and shipped in from California just don’t make the grade. Really ripe peaches do not ship well and are best appreciated from local sources. We are lucky to have a major grower in our area, and Eckert’s peaches are now available from the market or pickyour- own at their farm in Belleville.
First of the season of freestones is Red Haven. It is followed by Jim Dandee, Loring, Crest Haven, Encore and the white peaches in an overlapping series ending in August. On an occasional lucky year they will last until Labor Day. This year, with the very warm winter and early spring, Angie Eckert says they harvested their first ever May peaches this year, opened for public picking in June (not the usual mid-July), and expect the harvest to finish much sooner than normal. So don’t delay! Grab your sun hat, lightweight long-sleeved shirt, water bottle and sunscreen to head out to Belleville for a fresh peach fix.
Julie only let one peach into our former residence garden—a lovely, very dwarf, red-leaved, heavy flowering, deep-rose-pink form given to me by my friend Phil. It is a pass-around plant, and I can only guess what cultivar it might be. Think of this one as a bush more than a tree, but one with rich, elegant red foliage following the stunning April bloom. Peaches have a simple beauty with the blossoms held tightly to the branches. Some years, the flowers are so thick that the trees look as if they are quilted with thick layers of pink silk.
There are many choices of flowering peaches for ornamental use in the home garden. Michael Dirr in the Manual of Woody Landscape Plants states, “The genetics of peach reproduction are unique for I know of double-flowering and weeping types that reproduce true-to-type from seed.” Add to that list Phil’s unnamed dwarf red. Garden varieties include ‘Alba Plena,’ a large-flowered white double; ‘Bonanza,’ a natural dwarf; ‘Early Double’ in pink, red or white; ‘Helen Borchers’ a late, large-flowered pink; ‘Weeping Double’ in pink, red or white; and ‘Royal Red Leaf’ with maroon foliage and deep pink flowers. This last one could be Phil’s mystery red peach, but who knows?
Most peaches, under the best of conditions, rarely last more than 20 years. Treat them as garden ephemerals and revel in the peach blow as the petals flutter in the breeze and delight in the succulence of their fruit. If you want a special treat, visit Belleville when the whole orchards are in bloom. In spite of their lack of permanence in our gardens, we shall share ripe peaches to celebrate our own longevity.
Patricia Raven, Ph.D., has a doctorate in ornamental horticulture and Julie Hess is senior horticulturist at the Missouri Botanical Garden.