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Seasonal Eating: Happy National Peach Month!

By August 13, 2013Seasonal Eating

The Seasonal Eating series is dedicated to understanding why it’s fun and healthy to eat seasonally, the struggles and joys of this, what this means for the environment, for your recipes, and giving AHO subscribers a little history behind the California produce that comes in the box.

Happy National Peach Month! What, you didn’t send out your cards? Fun Fact: Celebrating this summer staple began in 1982 when the United States Congress declared August the official month of the peach. So, you still have time to get those cards in the mail. To honor this fruit, which has filled our AHO boxes for several months this summer, let’s take a quick look at its history and how it came to be a staple of the summer season in California.

Still Life with Peaches, detail of wall painting from Herculaneum, c70 CE
Museo Nazionale, Napoli

 

Peach farming in the United States, and specifically California, is relatively recent in the history of peach cultivation. Peach orchards did not begin to appear in California till about the mid-nineteenth century. The origins of the peach, however, are much much older. Historians believe that peaches originated in China and archaeological finds support that wild peaches were being grown as early as 7000 BCE.[1] It is thought that the peach reached Europe around 300 BCE via the Silk Road, a trade route that connected Europe to Asia. The Greeks and Romans mistakenly believed the peach originated in Persia (modern day Iran) as this is likely where they first encountered the fruit, and the Romans thus named it prunus persica, which remains its scientific name. The beauty and deliciousness of peaches became widely known, thanks in part to the ancient publicity of writers such as the famous Roman author Virgil. He was one of the first Roman’s to sing the fruit’s praises in the 1st cen CE. A painting which survived the eruption of the Italian volcano, Mt. Vesuvius in 70 BCE, preserved today in the Archaeological Museum of Naples, depicts several yellow flesh peaches. The exposed pit and the shape of the fruit’s leaves help reveal its identity. Sources such as this painting and Virgil’s writing confirm for historians that the peach had reached Italy by this time.[2]

Despite the Romans’ error, scientists accepted the Middle Eastern origin of the stone fruit till around the nineteenth century when finally its Chinese origins were confirmed.

Yet how did peaches, which originated half way around the world, end up in California?

Historians believe peaches reached the Americas is two waves. The first was in the 16th century along with Spanish explorers to Central America. An account book known as the Relaciones geográficas helps to confirm this point. This book, which was completed in 1577 by Spanish settlers in Mexico (at the request of their authorities back in Spain) with the help of local Amerindian tribes, made an account of the day-to-day life in the region in the 16th century. The Relaciones confirms that several crops that we eat today were growing plentifully in the region by the 16th century. For example, regarding the village of Xiquilpan [Jiquilpan] and the plants that grew there the account tells us:

“In this village and its surrounding areas, grow pears, figs, pomegranates, grapes, peaches, quinces, nuts, apples, all Castillian [Spanish] fruits. Native [plants] are avocados, sweet canes, guavas, capulines (which are local cherries), squash, chile, tomatoes and a lot of corn. It is land where it does not snow, formerly or now. They raise many birds, both native and from Spain. They grow cabbages, lettuce, onions, radishes, blites, and every kind of vegetable from Spain. Wheat and barley grow in this village.” [3] 

After its introduction into Central America in the 16th century, the peach eventually made its way north to the western regions of modern day Arizona, California, and up the eastern coast of the United States from Spanish settlements in Florida. The second wave of peach import was a result of direct import by sea from China in the 1850s. Peaches arrived on the eastern seaboard and from there the fruit made its way west. By 1860 there were already over one million peach trees growing in the Golden state. [4]

Did you know that today California (yes California, not Georgia) is the leading producer of peaches in the United States? 

According to the Agricultural Marketing Resource Center California supplied nearly 50% of the fresh peach crop produced in the United States in 2010. The typical harvesting season for peaches in California ranges from mid-April to early October.


[1]Desmond R. Layne, Daniele Bassi, The Peach: Botany, Production and Uses. CABI, 2008, 37.

[2] Miklos Faust, “Origins and Dissemination of the Peach” Horticulture Review vol. 17 (1995): 348.

[3] Tony Burton, Did You Know? Mexico’s Doomsday Book. http://www.mexconnect.com/articles/1220-did-you-know-mexico-s-domesday-book, 2008. 

[4] Layne and Bassi, The Peach, 146.

Author Jessica Lessard

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