Whether it’s their flavor or their fuzz, there’s something about peaches that just seems so friendly.
But even the most fondly familiar things have a past – and when it comes to the humble peach’s rise to prominence, the story is anything but modest.
Indeed, there are many who believe the peach may have a longer past – and even longer future – than nearly anything else on earth.
The fruit has long been considered a symbol of longevity and even immortality in its native China.
Chinese mythology tells of a group of deities celebrating the everlasting life provided by the fruit every six thousand years, in an extravagant ceremony called the Feast of Peaches. The legend, usually referred to as the Peaches of Immortality, explains that the peach trees planted for the occasion would take 1,000 years to sprout leaves, and another 3,000 for the peaches it produced to ripen – talk about delayed gratification!
Even today, the feast remains a popular celebration in China, observed annually on the third day of the third moon month. And all across Asia, the peach is still associated with, if not immortality, then at least vitality, thanks to the beautiful blossoms that appear on their trees before their leaves even start to sprout.
As such, the peach has long enjoyed a prominent place in folklore and tradition in China and all over Asia.
Peach tree branches were used by early Chinese rulers exploring new territories, to protect against evil spirits, while New Years celebrations saw the wood hung over doors in an attempt to ward off the same type of ill-willed energy for the coming year.
In Korea, peaches represent not just longevity but riches, honors and happiness itself, and the trees are considered one of 10 immortal plants and animals. As a sign of respect for their mystic powers, peaches are never placed on the table there.
And in Vietnam, peaches are not just seen as warders of spectral evils but those posed by members of this mortal realm, with the delivery of a peach tree branch tied to a historic military victory over an invading Qing dynasty army from China.
Still, it wasn’t just in Vietnam where peach trees went hand and hand with military conquest.
Peaches may have never left their mystic homeland if it weren’t for one of history’s most successful conquerors, Alexander the Great.
The ultimate military man has been credited with spreading the seeds of peach-based victory from Asia and the Middle East through Europe. In fact, the peach’s scientific name, Prunus persica, is a reference to Persia, the area of the world Alexander brought peaches in from, rather than a nod to their more ancestral Asian roots.
But it didn’t take long for the new continent to embrace the cool-weather plant as their own.
One of a small number of fruits that actually require a chill to blossom, peaches took off in the colder climates of Europe, instantly cementing their popularity as one of the only readily-available sweet natural treats in the region.
And in the hands of the European Masters, the plants picked up even more symbolic meaning and artistic representation.
Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Claude Monet, Edouard Manet and Vincent Van Gogh are just a few painters who took up peaches as prominent subjects, with the fruit’s arrival in Europe paired perfectly with the impressionist art movement – and it’s focus on still-lifes.
In their well-crafted paintings, peaches took on the meaning of not just vitality but good health generally. The fruit itself was also associated with heart, with its oblong leaves representing the tongue and the plant as a whole standing in for the speaking of one’s heart.
Meanwhile, the fruits had also gained favor with the continent’s conquistadors of the early 16th century, thanks to the easy storage of their sproutable pits, and the fruits made their way across the ocean to capture the hearts and minds of a whole new group of people.
Peaches completed their world domination in the mid-1500s, when the fruits were brought to the Americas by a group of Spanish monks.
They first took up roots in the United States not long after, with the country’s first grove of peach trees planted in sunny St. Augustine, Florida. The crop soon spread throughout the South, and was also utilized by early settlers in Jamestown, Virginia, but it was several centuries before the plant would settle on perhaps its most famous American setting: Georgia.
By the 1850s, peaches were in regular demand across the U.S., and farmers had begun working on a number of cultivars created to encourage specific colors, flavors and hardiness. And the effort really took root in Georgia, with the state growing flush with peach over the ensuing decades.
Heralding the significance of the “Georgia Peach,” the state put on a festival to honor the fruit’s importance in the 1920s, drawing hundreds of thousands of spectators. The celebration was perhaps even more fitting than the planners imagined, harkening back to the Feast of Peaches festivals thrown in the fruit’s ancestral China.
And of course, the fruit’s popularity has only endured, especially in Georgia, which officially became the “Peach State” in 1995.
It’s a full-circle story of natural sweetness, but if their mythological lineage tells us anything, it’s that peaches will surely live to see any number of historical cycles unfold. And hopefully, they’ll live up to their immortal promise so we can able to enjoy these delicious treats for all eternity.
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