The leaves are lanceolate, 7–15 cm long and 2–3 cm broad. The flowers are produced in early spring before the leaves; they are solitary or paired, 2.5–3 cm diameter, pink, with five petals. The fruit is a drupe, with a single large seed encased in what appears to be wood, but isn't (called the "stone" or "pit"), yellow or whitish flesh, a delicate aroma, and a skin that is either velvety (peaches) or smooth (nectarines) in different cultivars. The flesh is very delicate and easily bruised in some cultivars, but is fairly firm in some commercial cultivars, especially when green. The seed is red-brown, oval shaped and 1.5-2 cm long. Peaches, along with cherries, plums and apricots, are stone fruits (drupes).
The scientific name persica, along with the word "peach" itself and its cognates in many European languages, derives from an early European belief that peaches were native to Persia (now Iran). The modern botanical consensus is that they originate in China, and were introduced to Persia and the Mediterranean region along the Silk Road before Christian times. Cultivated peaches are divided into clingstones and freestones, depending on whether the flesh sticks to the stone or not; both can have either white or yellow flesh. Peaches with white flesh typically are very sweet with little acidity, while yellow-fleshed peaches typically have an acidic tang coupled with sweetness, though this also varies greatly. Both colours often have some red on their skin. Low-acid white-fleshed peaches are the most popular kinds in China, Japan, and neighbouring Asian countries, while Europeans and North Americans have historically favoured the acidic, yellow-fleshed kinds, though some prefer the other.
Its English name derives from the Latin plural of persicum malum, meaning Persian apple. In Middle English, it melded into peche, much closer to what we call it today.
The Persians brought the peach from China and passed it on to the Romans. The peach was brought to America by Spanish explorers in the sixteenth century and eventually made it to England and France in the seventeenth century, where it was a popular albeit rare treat.
A Horticultist by the name of George Minifie supposedly brought the first peaches from England to the USA in the early seventeenth century, planting them at his Estate of Buckland in Virginia.
Various American Indian tribes are credited with migrating the peach tree across the United States, taking seeds along with them and planting as they roved the country.
Although Thomas Jefferson had peach trees at Monticello, United States farmers did not begin commercial production until the nineteenth century in Maryland, Delaware, Georgia and finally Virginia. California grows 65% of peaches grown for commercial production in the United States, but the Southern states, Colorado, Michigan, and Washington also grow a significant amount.
Today, peaches are the second largest commercial fruit crop in the States, second only to apples. Italy, China and Greece are major producers of peaches outside of the United States.
Peach trees grow very well in a fairly limited range, since they have a chilling requirement that subtropical areas cannot satisfy, and they are not very cold-hardy. The trees themselves can usually tolerate temperatures to around −26 °C to −30 °C, although the following season's flower buds are usually killed at these temperatures, leading to no crop that summer. Flower bud kill begins to occur at temperatures between −15 °C and −25 °C depending on the cultivar (some are more cold-tolerant than others) and the timing of the cold, with the buds becoming less cold tolerant in late winter. Certain cultivars are more tender and others can tolerate a few degrees more cold. In addition, a lot of summer heat is required to mature the crop, with mean temperatures of the hottest month between 20 °C and 30 °C. Another problematic issue in many peach-growing areas is spring frost. The trees tend to flower fairly early in spring. The flowers can often be damaged or killed by freezes; typically, if temperatures drop below about −4 °C, most flowers will be killed. However, if the flowers are not fully open, they can tolerate a couple of degrees colder.
Important historical peach-producing areas are China, Iran, France, and the Mediterranean countries like Italy, Spain and Greece. More recently, the United States (where the three largest producing states are California, South Carolina, and Georgia), Canada British Columbia), and Australia (the Riverland region) have also become important; peach growing in the Niagara Peninsula of Ontario, Canada, was formerly intensive but ended in 2008 when the last fruit cannery in Canada was closed by the proprietors. Oceanic climate areas like the Pacific Northwest and coastline of North Western Europe are generally not satisfactory for peach growing due to inadequate summer heat, though they are sometimes grown trained against south-facing walls to catch extra heat from the sun. Trees grown in a sheltered and south-facing position in the southeast of England are capable of producing both flowers and a large crop of fruit. Peach trees are the second most commonly cultivated fruit trees in the world after apple trees.
The nectarine is a cultivar group of peach that has a smooth, fuzzless skin. Though fuzzy peaches and nectarines are commercially regarded as different fruits, with nectarines often erroneously believed to be a crossbreed between peaches and plums, or a "peach with a plum skin", they belong to the same species as peaches. Several genetic studies have concluded in fact that nectarines are created due to a recessive gene, whereas a fuzzy peach skin is dominant. Nectarines have arisen many times from peach trees, often as bud sports.
As with peaches, nectarines can be white or yellow, and clingstone or freestone. On average, nectarines are slightly smaller and sweeter than peaches, but with much overlap. The lack of skin fuzz can make nectarine skins appear more reddish than those of peaches, contributing to the fruit's plum-like appearance. The lack of down on the skin also means their skin is more easily bruised than peaches.
The history of the nectarine is unclear; the first recorded mention in English is from 1616, but they had probably been grown much earlier within the native range of the Peach in central and eastern Asia.
Most peach trees sold by nurseries are named cultivars grafted onto a suitable rootstock. It is also possible to grow a tree from either a peach or nectarine seed, but the fruit quality of the resulting tree will be very unpredictable.
Peaches should be located in full sun, and with good air flow. This allows cold air to flow away on frosty nights and keeps the area cool in summer. Peaches are best planted in early winter, as this allows time for the roots to establish and be able to sustain the new spring growth. When planting in rows, plant north-south.
For optimum growth, peach trees require a constant supply of water. This should be increased shortly before the harvest. The best tasting fruit is produced when the peach is watered throughout the season. Drip irrigation is ideal, at least one dripper per tree. Although it is better to use multiple drippers around the tree, this is not necessary. A quarter of the root being watered is sufficient.
Peaches have a high nutrient requirement, needing more nitrogen than most other fruit trees. An NPK fertiliser can be applied regularly, and an additional mulch of poultry manure in autumn soon after the harvest will benefit the tree. If the leaves of the peach are yellow or small, the tree needs more nitrogen. Blood meal and bone meal, 3–5 kg per mature tree, or calcium ammonium nitrate, 0.5–1 kg, are suitable fertilisers. This also applies if the tree is putting forth little growth.
If the full amount of peaches is left, they will be under-sized and lacking in sugar and flavour. In dry conditions, extra watering is important. The fruit should be thinned when they have reached 2 cm in diameter, usually about 2 months after flowering. Fresh fruit are best consumed on the day of picking, and do not keep well. They are best eaten when the fruit is slightly soft, having aroma, and heated by the sun.
In the August 13, 2004 edition of the Journal of Experimental Botany, researchers found that peaches stored around became mealy and discolored.
Peaches are known in China, Japan, Korea, Laos, and Vietnam not only as a popular fruit but for the many folktales and traditions associated with it. Momotaro, one of Japan's most noble and semi-historical heroes, was born from within an enormous peach floating down a stream. Momotaro or "Peach Boy" went on to fight evil oni and face many adventures. Peach flowers are admired by the Japanese but not as much as the sakura (cherry).
In China, the peach was said to be consumed by the immortals due to its mystic virtue of conferring longevity on all who ate them. The divinity Yu Huang, also called the Jade Emperor, and his mother called Xi Wangmu also known as Queen Mother of the West, ensured the gods' everlasting existence by feeding them the peaches of immortality. The immortals residing in the palace of Xi Wangmu were said to celebrate an extravagant banquet called the Pantao Hui or "The Feast of Peaches". The immortals waited six thousand years before gathering for this magnificent feast; the peach tree put forth leaves once every thousand years and it required another three thousand years for the fruit to ripen. Ivory statues depicting Xi Wangmu's attendants often held three peaches.
The peach often plays an important part in Chinese tradition and is symbolic of long life. One example is in the peach-gathering story of Zhang Daoling, who many say is the true founder of Taoism. Elder Zhang Guo, one of the Chinese Eight Immortals, is often depicted carrying a Peach of Immortality. The peach blossoms are also highly prized in Chinese culture, ranked slightly lower than mei blossom.
Due to its delicious taste and soft texture, in ancient China "peach" was also a slang word for "young bride", and it has remained in many cultures as a way to define young women or a general state of goodness(as in English, with peach or peachy keen).