For many people, the first sure sign that summer is finally on its way is the appearance of fresh peaches at their local market. Normally available throughout North American and Western Europe spring, summer and fall, peaches are one of those special foods that make you feel good when you eat them … just because.
Humans have been eating – and growing – peaches since before the dawn of recorded history. Most experts believe that the peach originated in Eastern Asia, and was first cultivated by man in what is now Zhejiang Province in China (where peach trees still grow wild today) between 5,000 and 6,000 BC. Peaches were introduced to the Western world – specifically Greece – around 300 BC, and made their way to the New World with the Spanish explorers.
Botanically speaking, peaches are the fruit of a tree – Prunus persica – in the Rosaceae family of plants, and are very closely related to the nectarine. In fact, it is not unheard of to find nectarines growing on the same tree as peaches. Scientists believe that the only difference between the two fruits is the mutation of a single gene that makes the nectarine smooth and gives the peach its fine ‘fuzz’. Peach trees grow best in temperate areas around the world, and will not usually do well in extremely hot or extremely cold climates – needing a mixture of both hot and cold seasons to thrive.
Today there are about 25 million metric tons of peaches and nectarines commercially cultivated throughout the world, with China accounting for almost 60% of total production, and the EU coming in second. The US produces a little over a million metric tons annually, most of which comes from the states of California, South Carolina, and Georgia.
Peaches are a type of ‘drupe’, or stone fruit – meaning that they will have a large ‘stone’ or pit in the center of the flesh – and will usually be classified as either clingstone or freestone. The pit in the clingstone varieties ‘clings’ to the flesh and is hard to remove, while the pits in freestone peaches are easily removed. Most (but not all) peaches will have fuzzy reddish-yellow skin and yellow or white flesh, depending on the variety. Virtually all types of peaches can be eaten raw, and are sometimes cooked, frozen or canned.
There are currently over 2000 different cultivars of peaches (500 in the US alone), with more being developed on a regular basis as scientists and growers continue to crossbreed and enhance existing strains to develop better tasting, more disease resistant and easier to grow varieties.
So what are some of the most common and interesting types of peaches available today?
Yellow peaches are the most commonly commercially cultivated in the world today, and what most of us envision when we think of a peach. They are also probably very close to what peaches looked and tasted like when they were first cultivated in China 8,000 years ago. Their skins are thin and fuzzy, and will often have a mixture of red, pink and yellowish-gold throughout. Generally speaking, yellow peaches are less sweet and slightly more acidic than white varieties (discussed below), giving them the quintessential peach flavor. Most of the peaches commercially cultivated and sold in the United States are yellow peaches.
Considered by many to be the gold standard when it comes to yellow peaches, the Red Haven (occasionally spelled Redhaven) is one of the most popular peaches in the world today. Developed by growers in South Haven, Michigan in the 1930s and first introduced to the market in 1940, the tree is very sturdy, quite resistant to cold temperatures, and will thrive in most parts of the United States and Western Europe. It is a heavy early to the mid-season producer which makes it a favorite with commercial growers.
The Red Haven peach itself is a mid-size freestone fruit with a vibrant red and yellow thin, nearly fuzz-less skin. The yellow flesh is firm and has a fine grain and smooth texture. The fruit is quite juicy and the taste is moderately sweet and slightly acidic. Normally eaten fresh by itself or as part of a fruit salad or medley, it is also often canned (by itself or as part of a ‘cocktail’) and stands up to freezing better than many other types of peaches.
Quite popular with commercial and home growers alike, the Contender peach tree was developed at the North Carolina Agricultural Experiment Station in the late 1980s. Created specifically to stand up to colder environments, the Contender can tolerate sub-zero winters and late spring frosts better than many other types of peach trees and will thrive in most parts of the United States and Southern Canada, making them a particular favorite of Northern home growers.
The Contender peach is an average-size mid-season freestone fruit that has a bright red over yellow skin and a moderate amount of fuzz. The yellow flesh is very juicy and tender and has a ‘melt in your mouth’ quality when eaten. The Contender is most often eaten fresh or canned. Although it is relatively durable and will last longer than many other yellow peaches, it does not stand up to freezing particularly well.
Another quite hardy peach tree that stands up to cold weather quite well, the Reliance was first developed in New Hampshire and was designed to survive the particularly cold New England winters. The Reliance is a midsize freestone peach with moderate fuzz, yellow skin with a deep red blush, and a sweet firm yellow flesh that reddens considerably as it approaches the stone. Largely supplanted by the Contender (which is considered to be the better tasting peach) in the fresh produce market, the Reliance is today mostly commercially cultivated for canning, although it is a favorite with home growers due to its hardiness and ease of growing.
The Bonanza is a naturally occurring dwarf peach tree that, despite its small stature (it will normally only grow to between 5 and 7 feet high) produces a medium to large, midseason fruit. A favorite of home growers in the Southern and Western United States both for its fruit and its beautiful red flowers, the Bonanza is very sensitive to cold and will normally not survive in areas where the winters routinely have long periods of below-freezing weather. The Bonanza has moderate fuzz and mostly yellow skin with a light red blush. A freestone peach, the flesh is light yellow with a mildly sweet flavor and a firm texture. Very juicy and with low acidity, Bonanzas are excellent for fresh eating and canning.
The O’Henry peach was developed by a grower in Southern California in the late 1960s, and today is commercially cultivated in its home state, as well as Texas, Florida, South Carolina, and Georgia. The tree grows best in warm to moderate climates and does not tolerate extreme cold well. The nearly fuzz-less skin of the O’Henry is almost entirely bright red, with only a few streaks of yellow here and there, making it stand out from most other peaches. The flesh will usually be bright yellow with substantial red streaking that increases as it nears the freestone pit. The texture is very firm – almost crisp – and the flavor quite sweet with very little acidity. The O’Henry is a large, quite durable later season peach that is excellent as a snack, stands up to canning and freezing well, and is quite good for cooking and baking.
The Honey Babe is another dwarf variety of peach tree that is very popular with home growers in the Southern and Western parts of the United States as well as Australia and New Zealand. Normally topping out at about 5 feet, the Honey Babe does best in warm to moderate climates and is very popular as a ‘container’ plant in the American South. The trees produce a relatively fuzzy mid to large freestone fruit that has a yellow skin with a deep red blush. The flesh is usually a reddish-yellow, quite firm, sweet and mildly acidic, with a smaller than average pit. Honey Babes are normally eaten as is or used in fruit medleys.
Developed in the early 1960s at Virginia Tech’s Agricultural Station and released to the public in 1963, the Madison is a hybrid of the Red Haven specifically designed to be more resistant to common peach tree diseases including Brown Rot. Similar to its slightly more popular progenitor, the Madison is a very sturdy and adaptable peach tree that does well in both relatively warm and colder climates. Widely grown throughout the world, Madison peaches are mid to late harvest medium size freestones with red and yellow skin and a very firm, finely grained orange-yellow flesh that reddens considerably as it approaches the medium size stone. They are excellent eaten fresh and stand up well to canning and freezing.
Among the more popular varieties with home growers, the Red Baron peach tree is highly valued both for its peaches and for its abundant pink and red flowers, which appear for several weeks in the early spring. This tree grows best in warm to moderate parts of the world and produces very large peaches that can range from 3 to 4 inches in diameter. A mid to late season freestone peach, the skin has moderate fuzz and yellow and red color. The flesh is a deep yellow, quite firm and juicy, and sweet without much acidity. Excellent for fresh eating and canning, the Red Baron will not usually stand up to freezing well.
White peach varieties are relative newcomers to the Western world, although they have been cultivated and enjoyed throughout Asia for centuries and are still widely cultivated there. In fact, until about 50 years ago they were quite hard to find in European or North American markets, due in large part to the fact that they are more fragile than most yellow varieties, and do not ship well. Over the last half-century or so a large number of more sturdy and stable cultivars have been developed in the West, and the popularly of white peaches – particularly in the US – has increased exponentially. White peaches are usually sweeter and far less acidic than their yellow cousins.
One of the more popular white peach varieties in the Western World, the Arctic Supreme tree – despite its name – grows best in warmer climates with mild winters and is mostly cultivated in the Southern and Western US. The tree produces a large semi-freestone peach with an off-white and red colored skin and a cream colored firm flesh that is shot through with red as it approaches the pit. A very aromatic peach, the taste is tangy and sweet. Excellent for fresh eating and desserts, the Arctic Supreme will usually need to be consumed or frozen within a few days of picking. It does not stand up to canning well.
Belle of Georgia
Another very popular white peach variety, the Belle of Georgia tree will tolerate colder climates better than many white peach varieties. The tree produces an abundance of bright red flowers in the spring and very large yellow and red colored freestone peaches in the mid to late summer. The peach has a creamy white flesh that is very sweet and juicy and a smaller than average pit. The Belle of Georgia is something of a utility player in the white peach family and is excellent for fresh eating and use in desserts and fruit medleys are good for canning and freezing and stand up to cooking and baking better than many other white peach varieties.
Sometimes simply called the Polly, the Polly White is a native of Iowa and was first brought to market in the mid-1920s. A very hardy tree that can tolerate winter temperatures down to minus 20 degrees Fahrenheit, it will grow in most parts of the United States and Southern Canada, as well as throughout Western Europe. The tree produces a medium size freestone peach with a white skin blushed with red and medium fuzz. The white flesh is firm and finely grained, juicy with a very sweet flavor. Good for fresh eating, canning or baking, they do not freeze particularly well and are not as long storing as some other peaches.
Also called the Ghiaccio, the Ice is a relatively new cultivar of white peach developed in the mid-1990s at the Centrum for Fruit Cultivation in Rome, Italy. Mostly grown in Western Europe (particularly Italy and Spain) and yet to gain much popularity in the US market, the Ice is a freestone peach with an almost fuzz-free skin that is usually a light yellow and cream color throughout, with little or no red blush. The flesh is an almost pure white, very firm and crisp, exceptionally sweet and only slightly juicy. Ice peaches can be eaten fresh, used in cooking and baking applications, and pair well with ice cream. A very durable fruit, the Ice peach will usually keep for up to 3 weeks when refrigerated.
The Donut (its American name) is a unique peach that has an oblong shape and a flattened top and bottom which makes it look something like a donut without the hole – hence the name. A relative newcomer to the Western World – although very popular throughout Asia for centuries – the Donut is technically classified as a freestone white peach variety. The skin is most often yellow blushed with pink or light red and has a very fine, velvety fuzz. The flesh is cream color, very juicy and has a quite intense candy-like honey sweetness. This peach is also called the Flat, Saturn, Chinese, Jupiter, Sweetcap and Saucer in varying parts of the world.
The unappetizing-sounding Indian Blood peach was probably introduced to the New World by the Spanish in the 16th century and in the past was cultivated by a number of Native American tribes throughout Northern Mexico and what would eventually become the United States. Technically a clingstone white peach, the Indian Blood most often has a dark yellow, almost green skin blushed with red, heavy fuzz and a white flesh heavily shot through with deep red (hence the blood part of the name). Some strains of the Indian Blood tree will produce fruit that is a foot in circumference. Mostly found in specialty markets in the US, the Indian Blood has a semi-sweet, fairly tart taste, and is often canned.
Green peaches are not actually a specific type of peach, but rather the underdeveloped fruit of peach trees that are picked (or in some cases simply fall to the ground) before they have the chance to ripen. Normally almond-shaped and about the size of a ping-pong ball, they are effectively inedible by humans unless they are cooked or pickled. For many centuries Green peaches have been dried and ground for use in Traditional Chinese medicine (where it is called Bi Toa Gan) to help relieve pain and night sweats, stop bleeding and treat problems with the lungs and liver.