Peaches were first reportedly grown in China almost 4,000 years ago. Gradually the crop spread from its homeland to the western world via India and Persia where it was cultivated before being introduced into Europe.
Peaches are now commercially grown around the world. In North America, the peach was first brought to St. Augustine, Florida, by Columbus during his second and third trips to the New World. Since that time, peach orchards have spread throughout the northern and western United States.
While peaches can be grown in climates favorable to apple production, they tend to benefit by warmer temperatures. Most peach cultivars require more than 500 hours of cold temperatures below 7° C or 45° F, while some varieties require less chilling and are grown in higher elevations in the tropics. World leaders in peach production are the United States, Italy, Spain and India.
With the exception of grapes and apples, peaches are the most extensively grown temperate fruit in North America, particularly the United States. Today's successful peach industry is concentrated primarily on the east coast from New Jersey to Florida and on the west coast in California. Large, sweet, white-fleshed clingstone peaches are preferred in most Asian and some European countries, while westerners prefer the yellow-fleshed freestone varieties. However, there is increasing western interest in the white-fleshed fruits.
Currently, Georgia ranks third nationally in peach production, trailing California and South Carolina. California produces about 60% of the nation's annual crop, including almost 100% of the clingstone varieties. South Carolina commands over 15% of the dessert peach market and ranks as the second most important peach producing state in the U.S. However, Georgia's fresh market peaches are still a favorite throughout the country.
Profitability from peach orchards in the southeastern United states, which produce 35% of the nation=s annual peach crop, has been quite low for some time. These lower economic returns are primarily due to the high cost of input and the low efficiency of production resulting from poor peach tree survival. Inefficient production and diminishing tree life span and orchard longevity result from fruit growing problems such as Peach Tree Short Life (PTSL) Syndrome. In the Middle Georgia area average tree longevity has declined from 20 years to about 8 years during the past few decades. Research shows that rootstock, which plays an important role in tree survival, also affects tree growth and budbreak. Such failures in tree health result from stress incited by cold temperature (winter freezing and frost) injuries resulting in tissue disintegration. Bacterial canker (Pseudomonas syringae) is also directly associated with peach tree mortality in Georgia. PTSL losses are usually greater on old orchards than on new (non-short-life) or virgin sites, and are more devastating in lighter soils infested with nematodes than in heavier soils. For the successful performance of peach orchards, selection of suitable rootstocks and desirable scion cultivars is important because the rootstock imparts greater influence on the performance scion cultivars for tree survival, cold hardiness and Pseudomonas canker resistance than reciprocal influences of the scion and peach seedling rootstocks.
For the past 25 years, the Agricultural Research Station at Fort Valley State University has been engaged in peach tree rootstock research. During this period, more than 30 rootstocks have been investigated with regards to tree physiology, cold hardiness, tree survival and orchard longevity, phytohormones and PTSL syndrome. Innovative techniques for evaluating peach seedling rootstock performance have been developed and significant findings disseminated through professional conferences and in national and international scientific journals.
In the future, emphasis will be placed on the use of emerging biotechnologies to develop, evaluate, adopt and maintain superior cold hardy and stress-resistant peach rootstocks. This will be achieved through in vitro testing of existing and newly acquired peach germplasm in studies to investigate the development of PTSL, cold injury, bacterial canker and nematode infestation, and incorporation of available valuable genes through genetic transformation in order to improve winter or cold hardiness, resistance to canker and nematodes, and enhance overall tree survival and longevity of peach orchards in Georgia.
Efforts will also include the establishment of a Center of Excellence for Peach Research at the Fort Valley State University Agricultural Research Station.