Peaches Were America's First Invasive Species
Nothing announces summer quite like a perfectly ripe, juicy peach. The bright yellows and reds, the intoxicating aroma, the “shlurp” of the first delicious bite - peaches symbolize and epitomize a time of abundance and warmth. They are such a fixture of our culture that we often don’t even think about where they are from or how they came here. So how did this tree, Prunus persica - a native of China - become such an indelible part of our society?
As it turns out, peaches were the first invasive plant to hit North America.
In 1539, the Spanish conquistador Hernando de Soto landed with 600 men near what is today Tampa Bay, Florida. They explored and raided through the territories of many tribes living in what is now the southeastern United States - at that time claimed by Spain as a new territory. In addition to introducing diseases that would wipe out thousands of Native Americans in communities throughout eastern North America, de Soto is also believed to have introduced two species that came to define the Deep Southern wilderness: hogs and peaches. Both rapidly spread, even becoming invasive in the landscape. A few years later, we have records of Spanish missionaries introducing the peach again in Florida and Mexico. Native peoples in the Southeast immediately recognized what we know today: that the peach is a truly wonderful fruit.
Indigenous communities across the eastern seaboard planted peach pits around their villages and in fruit orchards, watching as the precocious trees grew rapidly and produced an abundance of food that could be eaten fresh, cooked, or preserved for the lean months. Word and seed of this new abundant fruit spread northward along indigenous trading routes, and peach plantings cropped up around many villages and tribal settlements throughout the Deep South, Mid-Atlantic, and Northeast.
By 1683, William Penn observed the Lenape growing peaches around what is today Philadelphia: "Here are also Peaches, and very good, and in great quantities, not an Indian Plantation without them ... one may have them by Bushels for little; they make a pleasant Drink and I think not inferior to any Peach you have in England, except the true Newington.” Penn was so inspired by Lenape peach orchard polycultures that he interplanted the trees in his own apple orchard at Pennsbury manor. A few years later, John Banister declared “…for the Indians have, and ever had greater variety and finer sorts of them than we… I have seen those they call the yellow plum-peach that have been 12 or 13 inches in girth,” adding "Peaches and Nectarines I believe to be Spontaneous ... for the Indians have, and ever had greater variety, and finer sorts of them than we."
Despite originating in China, peaches were now such a prominent fixture of the southeastern landscape that many early writers - notably John Bartram - thought they were native to North America. This was not a poor supposition either - peaches had escaped cultivation and become a quintessential part of southeastern woodland ecosystems. They were one of the first woody pioneer plants to reclaim fields - think of sumac, autumn olive, or Bradford pear today - and this contributed to their appeal. In the Carolinas in 1682, Thomas Ashe stated “the Peach Tree in incredible numbers grows wild.” Thomas Rudyard described peaches growing wild in the woods of New Jersey that same year. In 1709 John Lawson wrote "we are forced to take a great deal of Care to weed them out, otherwise they make our Land a Wilderness of Peach-Trees." By 1787, Luigi Castiglioni noted that, "Peach trees are so abundant in Virginia that often, upon cutting away a pine wood ... they cover the whole terrain." (the “pine wood”, by the way, likely refers to the famed Longleaf Pine Savanna that once covered much of the Southeast).
Peaches had effectively become, in the language of modern ecologists, a non-native invasive species. And like many subsequent invasive species (kudzu, multiflora rose, etc.) it was its usefulness to people that contributed to its spread. Every Native American village and garden was a dispersal vector for peaches in a new area - another place from which they could spread into the landscape. The razorback hogs descended from the pigs released by de Soto undoubtedly cherished this fruit as much as domesticated pigs, and were likely another dispersal agent for further spreading the seed in wild areas.
The peach orchards of the Cherokee, Lenape, Iroquois, and others did not resemble the orchards we are familiar with. Today, all commercial peach orchards are grown with grafted trees: two trees are spliced together, the bottom one with good roots, and the top with good fruits. In this way, a single peach variety can be grafted onto rootstock anywhere in the world. A seedling tree that isn’t grafted, however, will have traits from both of its parents, and will produce a completely different fruit from either. Planting an orchard of seedling trees today would create a population of unique trees with variable quality and disease resistance - something modern agriculture cannot economically cope with. Indigenous peoples throughout eastern North America, however, did plant orchards by the thousands with seedling trees. Even if some of these trees produced inferior fruit, some would also produce peaches of exceptional quality (remember the accounts of peaches with a girth of 13 inches?). In essence, growing peaches from seed didn’t just produce fruit, it could produce superior genetics that would be passed on and planted in new orchards and villages. The East Coast was a massive peach breeding project enacted over centuries by indigenous farmers, and the peaches we have today are often the descendants of these seedlings.
The differences between the peach cultures of native peoples and Europeans, however, went deeper. Indigenous traditions of land use and European property laws frequently came into conflict during this time period, and peaches often proved to be a contentious point of relations that would erupt into violence. The Peach Tree War, centered around what is now New York City, was initiated by the murder of a Wappinger woman by a Dutch settler for “stealing” a peach.
Because peaches had become an essential aspect of native foodways, they figured prominently in the story of colonists' ethnic cleansing and genocide of indigenous peoples east of the Mississippi. In the summer of 1779, George Washington sent an army led by John Sullivan in a punitive raid against the Seneca and Cayuga tribes for having sided with the British during the American Revolution. Washington stipulated repeatedly that the tribes’ lands should be completely destroyed: “the destruction of their settlements so final and complete, as to put it out of their power to derive the smallest succour from them, in case they should even attempt to return this season."
But when the American soldiers arrived in the Finger Lakes region, they were amazed to see orchards with thousands of fruit trees - apples, peaches, cherries - and advanced agricultural systems with produce previously unknown to them. This same campaign of destruction saw sweet corn introduced to the American palette for the first time - discovered by a soldier burning an Iroquois corn field. In the records of Sullivan’s campaign we find repeated mentions of peach orchards with hundreds, sometimes thousands of trees in nearly every village. These were all girdled, burned, or cut to the ground by American soldiers. So great was the devastation of this raid that the Seneca, Cayuga, and Oneida tribes never fully recovered - and the only record we have of their advanced agricultural systems comes from the notes of the Americans fighting to destroy them.
The popularity of peaches helped them become invasive, but it also proved to be their downfall. In the early 19th century, a slew of new problems struck the peach orchards of North America. The three worst - peach yellows, peach tree borers, and plum curculio - were not imported on foreign stock as is often cited, however, but were all native to the East Coast. These devastated peach orchards across the country and saw an industry turn frantic. Pests and diseases like these not only made peach growing much harder (nowadays it is nearly impossible to grow peaches without harsh chemicals along the East Coast), but they effectively removed wildling peaches from the landscape. No longer would dense stands of peach trees appear as soon as forest was cut. The first invasive plant species in North America was brought down by a consortium of pests and pathogens all endemic to our region.
Why didn't these strike sooner, then? It is possible that plum curculio, peach tree borer, and peach yellows all needed a few centuries to gain the necessary adaptations to feed on this novel species. Like many invasive plants, peaches were able to flourish on a new continent. Because they were so popular and widely planted, however, they also presented an enormous source of food for whichever insects or pathogens evolved quickly enough to feed on them. Plum curculio and peach tree borer both feed on native Prunus species, and likely did not have to adapt much in order to work through the chemical defenses of the peach. The vast plantings and wild populations of peaches then proved to be a continental smorgasbord for these insects and diseases, and they spread quickly through the East Coast, effectively ending the reign of the peach as America's most prolific fruit.
But if you know where to look, peaches can still be found wild in rare places here. Wild peaches resembling the “Indian Blood” and “Fleenor” varieties are naturalized all over the hills of southern Indiana. The hill country of South Carolina and Georgia is another place where naturalized “Indian Blood” type peaches can be seen, alongside others resembling the old New Jersey heirloom variety “Stump the World.” Whether these are escapees of old orchards, or naturalized varieties from the indigenous plantings of centuries ago, they are the living remnant of America’s first invasive species and a reminder of the indelible stamp that indigenous people have placed on our cuisine and culture. Every time we bite into the first ripe peach of summer, let us not forget whom we have to thank for it.