State fruit. The peach (Prunus persica, Rosaceae) is a temperate-zone stone fruit that is grown widely around the world. Peaches originated in China, where they have been cultivated for thousands of years. From China, peaches migrated to ancient Persia and then to Europe. In the 1600s the Spaniards introduced peaches to North America. By the early 1700s there were several prominent accounts of peach cultivation in South Carolina. The native Indians cultivated peaches and preserved them by drying and pressing them into cakes. Henry William Ravenel of Aiken is credited as the first commercial grower to ship peaches outside the state in the 1850s.
At the start of the twenty-first century, peaches were the most widely grown commercial fruit crop in South Carolina, comprising more than seventeen thousand acres in the state and with an estimated annual farm value of between $30 million and $40 million. Peaches have been grown in three primary regions proceeding from the mountains to the coast: the Piedmont, “The Ridge” region between Columbia and Augusta, and the coastal plains. South Carolina ranks as the number-two peach producer in the United States, after California. In 1984 the peach was designated by the General Assembly as the state fruit of South Carolina.
More than forty commercial varieties of peaches are grown in South Carolina. In a normal year more than two hundred million pounds of peaches are harvested in the state. The peach harvest season begins in early May and ends in late September. The vast majority of the commercially grown South Carolina peaches are destined for fresh markets up the eastern seaboard of the United States. Local roadside markets are the second major outlet for fresh peaches. Some peaches are grown specifically for processing into baby food and other value-added processed products.
Most peach trees in South Carolina’s commercial orchards actually begin in Tennessee nurseries. First a seedling rootstock is grown, and then a desirable fruiting cultivar is grafted onto that seedling. Trees are then dug bare-root and shipped to South Carolina for planting during the winter. Peach trees begin bearing fruit during their third year after planting, and peach orchards will remain in production for roughly fifteen years. A mature tree that is well cared for can produce up to eight bushels of fruit and may use up to forty gallons of water per day near harvest.
Peach cultivation in South Carolina can be very profitable, but several factors may negatively impact year-to-year profitability. Some of these include adverse environmental conditions (warm winters, spring freezes, hail, drought), pests and disease (peach tree short life, oak root rot disease), and economic factors (labor costs, urban encroachment). To diminish the impact of some of these factors, growers are utilizing newer technologies such as microsprinkler irrigation, integrated pest management, wind machines, and resistant rootstocks. In addition, they are constantly planting newer, high-quality varieties to expand their marketing opportunities.
Corbin, Mike. Family Trees: The Peach Culture of the Piedmont. Spartanburg, S.C.: Hub City Writers Project, 1998.