For a fruit whose lifeline is just a few days, and whose growing season is just a few weeks, peaches go back a long, long way. They have been cultivated in the U.S. for hundreds of years, but are originally native to China, where they have been grown for more than 2,500 years. They, along with nectarines, plums, apricots, cherries, olives and even almonds are known as drupes or stone fruits. A stone fruit is classified as any fleshy fruit with a single seed or pit in the center.
There are many individual types of peaches and nectarines, but the two major types are the yellow and white flesh varieties. Yellow peaches and nectarines have a yellow background with a pink to red blush; their flesh is deep yellow with a good balance of sweet tart flavors. Yellow peaches are best eaten when the flesh yields to gentle pressure. White peaches and nectarines have a creamy background with a pink to red blush overlay and creamy yellow flesh. They are usually less tart than their yellow counterparts and are ready to be eaten when still firm and crunchy. The white variety also ripens faster than the yellow.
Like peaches, plums also originated in China, though most of the ones sold in the U.S. are known as Japanese plums. This variety is usually small and round and comes in a variety of skin colors ranging from red, black, green and purple. Plums generally have tart skin with sweet flesh but some varieties are sweet inside and out. All three are nutrition powerhouses, full of vitamin C and A and potassium!
Although peaches, plums and nectarines are harvested April through October and peak in June, July, August and September, the growing process is a year-round effort. In the winter, there are no fruits on the trees but growers are busy pruning the trees and measuring “chill hours,” which are the hours the outdoor temperature drops below 45°F (but not below freezing). Basically, these fruit trees need sleep to prepare for the next year’s crop. Chill hours can affect all stages of the growing process from pollination to harvest. The number of chill hours needed ranges from as little as 350 to as many as 900, but a total of 800–850 chill hours is considered optimal.
In the spring, the trees enter the bud and bloom stage. Once they are in full bloom, the pollinated blossoms start growing fruit. Peach and nectarine trees are self-pollinating but plum trees rely on bees and the wind to be pollinated. By the summer the orchards are ready to give up their bounty with some late varieties extending the harvest through the beginning of fall.
The juicy yet firm flesh of peaches, nectarines and plums hold up well to heat, making them ideal for the grill, where their sugars will be developed and caramelized by the flames. Add a scoop of vanilla ice cream for a fun, unexpected barbecue treat.