It’s just not a summer without them
Among the fruits of summer, one stands alone for its juicy sweetness, sunset colors, and soft fuzzy skin. There’s a reason we refer to good things as “peachy.” Washington’s fame may be apples, but peaches sit proudly next to them, as well as our pears and Rainier cherries at roadside stands and farmers markets.
The volume of other tree fruit grown in the state dwarfs peaches and their siblings, the fuzzless nectarines. According to the USDA, Washington produced 13,800 tons of peaches in 2015, compared to 3.15 million tons of apples and 340,000 tons of pears.
One reason may be that peaches are highly perishable and can’t be stored long-term likes apples and pears, says Washington State University horticulture professor Desmond Layne.
Some varieties suit the state’s climate well: Frost, Red Haven, Contender, to name a few. Flat doughnut peaches, especially the Chinese variety pan-tao, have also grown in popularity. In western Washington, peaches and nectarines do tend to fight leaf curl and other problems with cold, wet weather around bloom time.
At WSU’s Tukey Orchard in Pullman, horticulturalists grow 11 varieties of peaches. Some is for research, but the orchard also offers u-pick and pre-picked sales at the orchard in late summer and fall.
Peaches have long pleased palates around the world. Originally from northwest China, they’re mentioned in ancient Chinese texts as far back as the tenth century B.C.E., when they were a preferred meal of emperors. From China, Silk Road merchants spread peaches to Persia and the Middle East. Alexander the Great took peaches to Europe, where they were later grown by the Romans and others.
Europeans also cultivated peaches as a treat for royalty. In Victorian England, it was written that no meal was complete without a fresh peach on a fine napkin. Hidden peach groves in Montreuil, France, a suburb east of Paris, are protected from the cold by walls. Those orchards have fed French diners since the seventeenth century, and even garnered a prestigious Legion d’Honneur for a horticulturalist.
Although the Spanish brought peaches to South America first, the fruit came to the North American colonies supposedly by way of English horticulturalist George Minifie in the seventeenth century. Cherokee and Iroquois traders sold peach seeds to the west. Eventually peaches crossed the continent to Washington.
Peaches not only taste sweet and delicious, WSU and other research has shown health benefits. In 2014, WSU assistant professor of food science Giuliana Noratto and colleagues at Texas A&M found that compounds in peaches can inhibit the growth of breast cancer cells and their ability to spread. Peaches are a fine source of antioxidants, as well. Interestingly, peaches have long been considered a symbol of long life and good health in China.
Some of the findings connect to a better understanding of the DNA of peaches. WSU horticulturalist Dorrie Main mapped the genome for the rosaceous family, which includes peach trees, in 2006. Her work in bioinformatics can lead to shortened time between improving tree fruit varieties and planting them for production.
New improved cultivars could come from other WSU tree fruit research, says Layne. Cameron Peace, another WSU horticulturist, is codirector of a national USDA breeding project which features peaches.
Orchardists from Camas to Kettle Falls, Wapato to the Skagit Valley, grow peaches until mid-fall. Roadside stands, u-pick, farmers markets, and local grocery stores will deliver those sweet, sun-ripened peaches to you, but the ways to prepare them are numerous.
Peaches taste wonderful by themselves or with ice cream. Peach pie—perhaps through a grandmother’s secret recipe—can transcend even the classic apple pie.
The fruit also takes well to the grill, which adds a smoky layer to the peachiness. It’s a favorite grilling fruit for celebrity chef Alton Brown, who recommends about four minutes a side on high heat.
Even after the season ends, you can retain some of the goodness of peaches by canning. WSU Extension advises using fresh, firm fruit when preserving peaches, about two or three pounds worth for a quart of canned peaches.
The Peach Melba
from the Auguste Escoffier School of Culinary Arts
1½ cups water
1¾ cups sugar
2 tbsp lemon juice
½ tsp vanilla extract
1 pint vanilla ice cream
1½ cups fresh raspberries
2 tbsp confectioner’s sugar
½ tbsp lemon juice
1. Combine water, sugar, lemon juice, and vanilla extract into a large saucepan and heat on low until sugar has dissolved. Increase heat to medium and bring to a boil. Let cook at boiling for about 3 minutes and then turn back down to a simmer.
2. Cut peaches in half. Place in the syrup and let poach for about 2 to 3 minutes per side. Test doneness with a knife. When finished poaching, remove to a plate.
3. After the peaches have cooled, peel off the skin and remove the stones. Set aside.
4. For the raspberry sauce, combine all ingredients in a food processor or blender and puree until very smooth. Strain through a colander and into a container.
5. Assemble the dish by putting 2 peach halves in a bowl along with a scoop of the ice cream. Spoon the raspberry sauce generously on top and serve immediately.
The story behind the Peach Melba (PBS History Kitchen)
On the web
Canning Fruits (Pacific Northwest Extension, PDF)