National Geographic : 1951 Sep
The Peach, Most Versatile of Fruit W HAT fruit besides the peach can be eaten whole like an apple, sliced with cream, dried, stewed, pickled, spiced, canned, distilled into a fine liqueur, cooked into pie or jam-or frozen into delicious ice cream? Partly due to its amazing versatility, partly because its flavor and texture are unsurpassed, the peach ranks near the top in popularity in the United States. In recent years an nual production has averaged more than 70, 000,000 bushels. It is also extensively grown in Europe, Asia, South Africa, Australia, and South America. Despite trouble with diseases and insects, it is much grown in small or chards and even back yards. In fact, some of the best thin-skinned, soft-fleshed varieties, like the Cumberland and Golden Jubilee, are so delicate they may be damaged in han dling and shipping, and are best grown where long trips to the market are not necessary. Americans show their high regard for the peach in symbolism. To tell a young lady she has a "peaches-and-cream" complexion is a high compliment; to describe the lady her self as a peach is also flattering, if less subtle. The Chinese thought the peach was sym bolic. Some early Chinese writers called it the tree of life, others the tree of death; still others thought it symbolized longevity. The pink peach blossom, for some reason, was associated in ancient China with feminine promiscuity, and all growers were warned against planting peach trees near the windows of a lady's boudoir. How a Name Misplaced a Fruit The word "peach" is based on a Latin word meaning Persian. The scientific name, Prunus pcrsica, also implies origin in Persia; peaches, in fact, used to be called "Persian apples." Thus for more than 2,000 years the native home of the peach was believed to be Persia. This belief, however, has not stood up under scientific scrutiny in the past century. In tracking down the origin of a plant, scientists, like detectives, must piece together a variety of clues. One hint that Persia was not the home of the peach was the fact that there was no mention of the fruit in early Hebrew literature or in Sanskrit; this would indicate that it was unknown in the area from Persia to western India about 1500 B. c. Looking farther east, botanists found peaches of a number of types which appeared to be native over large areas of China, with all the characteristics of the western fruit. More over, peaches are mentioned in Chinese litera ture earlier than 2000 B. c. Most recent students therefore agree that China is undoubtedly the native home of the peach. The range of the species probably was wide, extending over much of the country from Turkistan as far as the eastern coast. Once its home was settled as China, it was comparatively easy for botanists to trace the fruit's slow progress westward. Exactly how and when it reached Persia is unknown, but it probably traveled from China along caravan routes used in the pre-Christian Era. By 332 B. c. it had reached Greece-where a Greek writer described it as a Persian fruit. Virgil (70-19 B. c.) was the first Roman to mention the peach. Its culture spread all over the temperate parts of Europe in the cen turies that followed. The Spaniards probably planted the first peaches in the New World; by 1571 three types were growing in Mexico. The French in Louisiana, the English at Jamestown, the Pilgrims in Massachusetts, and others planted peaches as soon as their settlements were es tablished. The Indians, always alert to new food supplies, carried them inland far in advance of white settlements. Practically all varieties now grown in this country started here, most of them through chance discovery of superior trees among the many seedlings. Within the past 50 years Government experiment stations, both State and Federal, as well as some private research ers, have been systematically breeding peaches to develop good-quality varieties. The peach is not one of the hardiest fruits. Fruit buds are often killed by winter tem peratures of 10° below zero F., and tempera tures down to -20° F. will frequently kill trees. Most varieties also need a fairly long winter dormant season to start growth nor mally in spring. In the United States, peaches do best in the Pacific Coast States, especially California: along the Atlantic seaboard from Georgia to Massachusetts; and south and east of the Great Lakes-in New York, Ohio, and Michigan. Nectarine, the Same Fruit, but No Fuzz The nectarine, not widely known in the United States, is a smooth-skinned, or fuzz less, peach. It is indistinguishable from the peach in tree, leaf, or flower. Fruits are simi lar in shape, in pit, or stone, and both have varieties that have white, yellow, or red flesh color. Nectarines are usually somewhat smaller, firmer-fleshed, more aromatic, and have a distinct flavor often richer than the peach. They originate as true breeding mutations of the peach, and have been es teemed in Old World countries for more than 2,000 years. But, because their smooth skin makes them vulnerable to insects, disease, and cracking, they are not as successful as peaches in the humid eastern United States. They reach our markets in limited quantities, mainly shipped from the western States.