Test Your Peach I.Q.

How to pick your favorite cultivar.

Georgia yellow peaches ripe for the picking.

Georgia yellow peaches ripe for the picking.

What is your favorite type of peach?  There are so many choices for peach lovers today, it can be overwhelming. But it helps to break it all down into categories and types before you can definitively pick a favorite. For example, do you prefer clingstone, freestone or semi-freestone peaches? 

Just as their names imply, clingstone peaches have flesh that clings to their pits, freestones have pits that are easily removed and don't adhere to the fruit and semi-freestones share similarities with the latter two—the flesh clings to the pit until they are ripe and then the fruit falls off easily. Freestones are usually the most prevalent type of peach found in grocery stores.

The color of the peach is also an important indicator. Yellow peaches combine sweetness and acidity with a pleasing tanginess while white peaches tend to be sweeter and less acidic. The flesh of yellow peaches can also be so juicy when ripe that they can be a mess to eat with juice running down your face and staining your clothes. In contrast, the flesh of the white peach when ripe tends to melt in your mouth. But new cultivars of both can sometimes blur the lines on these distinctions.

And where do nectarines fit in? Although some people assume a nectarine is a cross between a peach and a plum, it is actually a genetic mutation of a peach with smooth skin. Like donut or other less traditional peach types, nectarines also have yellow or white flesh. But with hundreds of varieties available, it could take an entire lifetime to find the perfect peach. Do you prefer the red-blushed yellow 'August Pride' freestone over the white 'Arctic Supreme' clingstone or the yellow-fleshed, semi-clingstone 'Easternglo' nectarine?  Indecision has never been so delicious.

Most peach lovers know that local farms or farmers' markets are the best places to buy tree-ripened fruit and not commercial chain stores where the peaches are picked before they are fully mature and shipped to their locations. Commercial chains also don't indicate which peach cultivars they are selling. Instead their peach bins will be labeled "South Carolina yellow peaches" or "California white organic peaches" or something equally generic. 

But for some peach fans, it's all about the region. Although peaches are grown in at least 28 states, the top distributors of peaches are, in this order: California, South Carolina and Georgia. But each state has passionate advocates who firmly believe their state produces the best tasting peaches in America, whether they are yellow or white peaches. I can't state with any confidence that I can tell the difference between a 'Carored' yellow peach from South Carolina or Georgia. So I decided to put the question to peach expert Dr. Desmond R. Layne, Endowed Chair—Tree Fruit Extension Program Leader and Professor of Pomology, Department of Horticulture, Washington State University.

If you were to take a blindfold test and sample a variety of freestone peaches from California, Georgia and South Carolina, could you tell by the smell, taste and shape what region each one came from? Layne's answer: "If they were tree-ripened peaches, the same cultivar (from each place), picked at peak of maturity and served to me right off the tree, the answer is probably not.  However, if they were typical cultivars of the region, collected from the local retail chain store, probably yes [at least comparing CA with southeast (GA or SC)]." 

The important thing to know about peach cultivars, Layne emphasizes, is that they all have a limited availability during the season because they are tender fruits with short shelf lives. The commercial grower might have several cultivars growing during the season that ripen and go to market at different intervals. The 'Julyprince' peach could be in season one week but gone the next week with Early 'Augustprince' replacing it. 

"The point is not to get hooked on a particular cultivar and be disappointed when it is gone," Layne states. "When the buyer finds one he/she really likes, they should go back quickly, buy a bunch, enjoy fresh, preserve (freeze/can/dehydrate) what they want and continue to try and enjoy new cultivars as the season progresses." This is how you can become a genuine peach expert.

For more information on peaches and the numerous cultivars, I highly recommend the following resources and references provided by Dr. Layne, whose contributions and insights on this topic have been indispensable. Visit the Everything About Peaches web site at Clemson University's Cooperative Extension division which was created by Layne. At this site, Dr. Layne has 50 educational videos. In particular, you can view the "Peach Picks for South Carolina" series or "Your Day" series to see him show and talk about more than 20 of his favorite types. To find a local farm near you where you can buy fresh peaches, try both of these links:

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