Every Peach Has its Day
Peaches are the tried and true, go-to summer fruit of the South. I’ll give you that berries are nice, plums and apricots are good, too, but nothing compares to the flavor (or capabilities) of a locally grown, sun-kissed summer peach in all its glory. Peach season in our area begins around the middle of June and can extend, depending on the weather, beyond Labor Day. Throughout the season different varieties of peaches can be found locally, from creamy white fruit with ‘clingy’ pits to the robust reddish-orange ‘freestone’ varieties (see sidebar for an explanation of cling and freestone) we often associate with eating fresh or using in pies.
Every variety (and there are a lot of peach varieties) has its own moment to shine at local farmers’ markets and farm stands. All tree fruits that rely on a single bloom of pollinated flowers, like peaches, will produce a harvest all at one time. Different varieties bloom at different times — a good thing for the peach farmer as bad weather can essentially wipe out one variety in bloom while a later variety is fine. The harvest time for a variety is determined by genetics along with weather factors. Unlike a vegetable farmer who can vary planting times to extend the season of a favorite crop or plant varieties that are ever-bearing or indeterminate, peach farmers must plant different varieties in order to have fruit available for market continuously throughout the summer. Peaches also have a short shelf-life and are easily damaged which also adds to the need for variety on a farm.
An individual peach farm may have planted 12 to more than 50 different varieties in order to bring a marketable summertime harvest. Trees change occasionally on a peach farm due to improvements in varieties and the replacement of damaged trees or trees that have fallen off in productivity. Peach trees are their most productive between years four and eight and are often replaced after year 12. Given that peaches don’t produce a harvestable crop for the first three to four years, a peach farmer must not only rotate varieties, but also manage the age of the orchard. And yes, there is a large up front price invested in a crop that will be years in the making. Each tree has to be watered, pruned, and maintained for the entire time, even though it will not produce a harvestable crop for three to four years.
Locally, we are blessed with a variety of peaches that come to farm stands, farmers’ markets, and local grocers from mid-June to September each year. Our weather can sometimes wreak havoc on a crop (mostly due to hard winds that break branches) but we generally have an abundance of peaches in an assortment of varieties available to enjoy for fresh eating, canning, and of course, in pies. Jones Orchard, who sells at virtually all of the local farmers’ markets as well as at their own stand in Millington, lists 15 different varieties of peaches that they grow, harvest, and sell throughout the summer months. We have selected four of their varieties, Redhaven, Georgia Belle, Elberta, and Indian Cling, along with one more late harvest peach found locally from a variety of sources, Big Red, to illustrate the tremendous diversity of our local peaches.
For generations, the Elberta variety has been the gold standard of peaches. As a commercial variety dating to the 1870s, the Elberta sets the standard for all domestic peach production and was used by Luther Burbank to derive the June harvesting varieties. All other peach varieties are judged against the Elberta in terms of seasonal ripening (around August 1 locally). The Elberta hits the sweet spot for growers in terms of livelihood, pest-resistance, and required chill-hours to produce fruit for the South, though we may see fewer farmers planting the Elberta as other varieties with more desirable qualities appear on the market. The Elberta’s juicy yellow flesh, sweet flavor, and freestone pit make it a favorite for fresh eating, canning, and cooking.
Redhaven is another variety against which all others are judged. Ripening earlier (around July 1 locally) and bearing large crops of medium-sized, almost fuzz-less fruits, the Redhaven has a luscious flavor and is perfect for eating, cooking, canning, and freezing. The variety requires more chill-time to produce a crop; it is grown in areas where temperatures remain lower for a longer period of time resulting in the bright pink blossoms we often associate with peaches (although not all peaches have pink blossoms).
The Georgia Belle arrives locally in late July and is widely known for its pinkish exterior color and white flesh. The fruit has firm, sliceable flesh with a genuine peach flavor that cooks and freezes well. The Georgia Belle seems to come along every year just at the right time to start making Peach Sangria for the patio.
Cling varieties of peaches (see sidebar) are commonly eaten fresh or used for canning and preserving as they do not slice well for pies or other purposes. The Indian Cling is a beautiful variety grown locally, making its way to the market after the first of August with its red skin and red-streaked yellow flesh. At a medium size, Indian Cling peaches make a quick snack with rich flavor.
Rounding out the year is Big Red. Along with the locally grown Autumn Prince variety, Big Red closes out the season with large freestone fruits with juicy flavor and deeply red flesh. As a large, late harvest variety, Big Red fruit makes its way into preserving and freezing for use later in the year. And by large, we mean large. Big Red fruits are some of the largest peaches on the market at more than three inches across. That makes for a lot of eating (or preserving) from a single fruit.
Generally speaking, peaches are fragile (they bruise easily when ripe) and have short shelf lives. Some, but not all, varieties can be refrigerated to extended their shelf life (mainly for transportation reasons) but it is far better to purchase the fruit needed for canning, preserving, or pie baking and then head back to the market when you need more. Approaching peaches this way throughout the season gives everyone a reason to try different varieties and to discover the abundance and diversity of our local peach farms.
Cling vs. Freestone
Cling and freestone varieties of peaches are different in the way that the flesh of the fruit either ‘clings’ to the pit or ‘stone’ (actually the seed) of the peach, or is ‘free’ or loose from the stone. Semi-freestone varieties are also available that produce fruit that somewhat clings to the stone and often has a stone that splits when the fruit is cut open. The difference between cling and freestone varieties is important in terms of how a variety can be most effectively enjoyed during the season.
Cling peach varieties such as the Indian Cling or Miller (California) Cling produce medium- to large-sized fruits with robust flavor and color. These varieties can appear on the market from mid-season to late and are sometimes used for canning or preserves. But most often, cling peach varieties are best enjoyed as a whole fruit — the kind you just pick up and eat. The clinginess of the fruit makes enjoying these varieties easier when eating by hand. Not to say cling varieties cannot be enjoyed in other ways, but they are not best for the purpose.
Freestones such as the venerable Elberta and all-purpose Redhaven varieties also produce medium- to large-sized fruits later in the season with creamy soft flavors and excellent texture for baking, grilling, and slicing. Freestone varieties can also be used for canning and preserving and as any peach lover will tell you, these are also good eating right off the tree. But because the stone releases from the fruit almost completely, the fruit is better suited for slicing and that means only one thing — pie.
Semi-freestone combine the best of both worlds with excellent flavor, texture, and color from fruits that are easy to process and use with only a minimum amount of loss due to the cling. Dessert Gold is a great mid-season variety commonly found at market and at local grocers.
Whether you want to enjoy your peach straight from the tree, canned or preserved, or sliced for a summer pie, you will find cling or freestone varieties locally to fit the bill.
Photos Courtesy of Stark Bros. Nursery