The dark red, velvet-skinned, late season peach beloved of many a Kiwi has recently undergone a name update, bringing it firmly in to the 21st century. Sanguine peach, blood peach, Pêche de Vigne (peach of the grapevine; vineyard peach) or simply, as I heard recently – purple peach – call it what you may, this fruit holds a special place in the hearts of countless New Zealanders. I’d like to contribute a suggestion of my own – given this fruit’s ability to produce quick-maturing trees that come reasonably true from its stones, general hardiness, propensity for bearing heavy crops and the tasty, anthocyanin-rich fruit it provides, I feel the ‘good-natured’ peach would be a worthy moniker.
My initial introduction to this curious fruit was during an overnight visit to a friend’s house while at primary school. We went for a wander on the farm and somewhere along the line, encountered said peach tree. My friend and her sister snaffled some fruit – turns out later this was not the done thing, and a dressing-down was issued by Mum, as it’s a bit hard to disguise lips and tongues stained a vivid red-purple (fair enough to say she was not at all impressed by the pilfering!). It wasn’t until several years later that I next encountered the Sanguine peach. My family moved to a rental property on the South Island’s West Coast, in a windswept location not far from the beach. Tucked in a corner by the garage were a pair of Sanguine trees – lucky for them, we built the chook pen around them. A sizeable crop of hefty peaches ensued, a large washing basketful and some, as I remember, no doubt in part due to the excretory efforts of Henri and Etta. After eating our fill, the remainder were passed on to a friend to preserve. Since that house, there has usually been a Sanguine peach tree in the garden of most places I’ve lived, or at least a friend nearby with a good supply. In my early twenties, a family friend taught me how to bottle fruit – that afternoon remains clearly imprinted in my memory, and always will, along with those valuable skills. What exactly did we bottle? You guessed it.
Sanguine peach: a short family history
Peaches (Prunus persica) are native to, and were first domesticated and cultivated in northwest China and to this day, China produces the majority of the world’s commercial peach crop. The species epithet persica relates to the movement of peaches from Asia to the Middle East via the Silk Road. Europeans first encountered peaches in Persia, hence the name, with the Greeks and Romans then transporting them throughout Europe. They are an extremely diverse group, with several hundred cultivated varieties. Have you ever wondered what the difference is between a peach and a nectarine, apart from the fuzz/no fuzz-on-the-skin situation? Well, nothing actually – they are one and the same species, with just a single gene mutation responsible for the nectarine’s lack of fuzz. The distinction between the peach and nectarine as different fruits is therefore a purely commercial one, though you may see nectarines classified botanically as P. persica var. nucipersica or var. nectarina.
More specifically, how far back can we trace the roots of the Sanguine peach? Red-fleshed peaches have been known to be growing in China for more than a thousand years, documented as such as far back as 1082 and have dispersed around the world from there. From what I can gather regarding the ‘vineyard peach’ link, we need to travel back to France, two and a half centuries ago to be precise, to the Coteaux du Lyonnais region, located in the central south-eastern part of the country, famed for its wine production. In general, peach trees are pretty susceptible to pests and diseases, particularly fungal diseases. Vintners adopted the practice of planting a peach tree or two amongst their vines as a biological indicator, a sort of horticultural canary-in-the-coalmine I guess you could say, the theory being that the delicate peach trees would succumb to disease before the slightly more hardy grapes, giving time for action to be taken in protecting the precious winegrape crop. These original trees bore small, downy red fruit – which themselves may have come about as a naturally-occurring mutation of a white fleshed peach. With propagation of these peaches traditionally being by seed, selection by both humans and as a result of the influence of environmental conditions has favoured the more deeply-coloured offspring and this claret-red fruit’s association with European winegrowing regions remains deeply entrenched to the present day. They are known as weingartenpfirsich throughout the German and Austrian winegrowing regions, with the Cochem region of Germany designating itself ‘The Region of the Red Moselle Vineyard Peach’ dedicating a full tourist programme of tastings, markets and tours to the virtues of this fruit. A wide range of drinks and preserves, from jam to cordial to alcoholic beverages are also prepared from the fruit. Red-fleshed peaches probably made it to North America via either the Spaniards in the 16th century or with the original settlers of the Americas via the Bering Strait – the exact route is disputed due to some of the finer details, but they are widespread on the continent and known as Cherokee peaches or Indian Blood peaches. How did the Sanguine peach make it to Antipodean shores? As with the Black Doris plum last month, another one of life’s little mysteries it seems. The late, great Virgil Evetts of New Zealand Gardener fame once romantically proposed it could have arrived in Akaroa with an early settler…I have my own fanciful thoughts that it may have arrived with Bishop Pompallier & Co…the exact origins are likely to remain a mystery.
Back on the nectarine front, fans of the Sanguine flavour but not so much of furry peach skin may be interested to know there is a ‘nectarine version’ available – another natural mutation, the New Zealand form was apparently found growing as a seedling underneath a Sanguine peach tree and is commercially available as ‘Black Pearl’. Overseas a similar variety is known (aptly) as a ‘nectavigne’. So there you have it, a fruit to suit all tastes.
Suitable climates and growing conditions
Peaches can be finicky to grow, but not so the Sanguine peach. I figure if you can grow one on the wild, wet, windswept West Coast, then you can grow one pretty much anywhere. In the Deep South, late frosts attacking early blossom may affect fruit set, conversely warmer temperatures in the Far North may provide insufficient chilling hours.
Peaches have variable winter chilling requirements, ranging from 200-1200 hours depending on cultivar. Modern dwarf cultivars require the least, and Sanguine peaches also tend towards the lower end of the scale, hence its suitability for culture throughout New Zealand.
Peaches are, in general, not as long-lived as other stonefruit trees, but given Sanguines grow dime a dozen from stones (and relatively quickly if cossetted) there is no harm in planting several and having a few replacements on the back burner. In New Zealand, the lifespan of a peach tree will be up to about ten years in the North Island and the late teens or early twenties in the south. Hardiness is this cultivar’s trump card!
Site selection and planting
Follow the general rules for fruit trees – select a sheltered but sunny site, peaches will tolerate some shade but the fruit ripens best with adequate sun, and warm, dry conditions will help keep fungal diseases at bay. Well-drained soils are best, and although peach trees will handle a range of soil types, waterlogging is the one thing that will make them curl up their toes quick-smart. If you have heavier soil types on your property (e.g. clay), you could try planting a tree grafted on to plum rootstock, as these trees will do better than a peach on its own roots in this instance. Some protection from wind is desirable, our peach trees have shelter from a nearby hedge, or are part of a shelterbelt where the constituent trees are well-spaced. It’s best to also avoid frost-prone areas, as the blossom is susceptible to late frosts in the spring.
Trees are best planted out in late autumn or winter, allow five to eight metres between trees. Work some compost or sheep pellets into the soil in the planting hole and water the tree in well. In the home orchard, plan to keep your peach trees below four metres in height for ease of picking and general management. Peach trees are by and large self-fertile (hurrah!) so if you only have room for one, that’s OK, but there’s no harm in planting several within reasonably close proximity either. Pollination is insect-assisted, so fingers crossed for warm, dry conditions at flowering.
As mentioned previously, Sanguine peaches are easily propagated from stones and although there will still be natural variation amongst the offspring, they will usually be pretty true to type. If you have a friend with a Sanguine tree of admirable pedigree, ask them nicely for a bag of stones at bottling time (or with a bit of luck, they might turn up on your doorstep with a bag of fruit!). On the internet, methods abound for germinating fruit stones. I have to admit I take the laziest of lazy approaches, simply burying fruit stones willy-nilly in pots and tubs throughout the summer, forgetting about them, then getting a nice surprise in spring when baby peaches pop up everywhere. A lot of stones make it into the compost too (I live by the adage of ‘if it comes from the earth, it should be returned to the earth’) so my garden beds are also riddled with fruit trees, the ones I felt sorry for and/or didn’t dig up in time. Hence my asparagus bed has a Sanguine in the middle of it and a freestone golden peach straddles the side of one of my raised beds. It’s probably best you don’t follow my haphazard example – instead, turn the germination into a mini-science project for your kids: try planting Sanguine stones under a range of different conditions – whole stones, cracked stones, stones cracked and the almond-like kernel extracted and planted ‘naked’, and chill some whole stones and kernels in the fridge for a few weeks before planting. It’s best to plant the stones ‘fresh’, fairly soon after eating the fruit, or at least before they dry out completely. Label each type and keep a diary – see which one germinates the fastest. Seedling-grown trees are often hardier than their grafted or budded counterparts too.
If you don’t have time for DIY cultivation, many nurseries stock Sanguine trees, with grafted trees giving the advantage of producing a crop sooner and a rootstock tailored to suit your soil type. Seedling trees will start producing around three years of age – although I have heard of mollycoddled trees producing in year two. You can expect some sizeable crops from a mature Sanguine tree, easily in excess of 20 kg. To prevent biennial bearing (a big crop one year then a small crop the next), thinning of heavy crops is desirable – undertake this when the central stone begins to harden (split open a few immature fruits if you’re not sure about timing). Remove a sufficient number of fruit to allow the remainder to reach a good size without stressing the tree and also take into consideration the size and strength of each branch in regards to what it can carry to maturity.
Culture and care
For optimum crops, peaches require some fertiliser inputs. Although Sanguines are as tough as old boots, I’ve noticed our older tree is looking a bit tired post-harvest this season, so I plan to give it a dose of fertiliser in the spring. This can be of a standard general fertiliser or an organic preparation, allowing 250-500 g per year of age for young trees, up to a total of 5 kg/tree at maturity. Split this in to two or three applications, applied in spring and early summer. Don’t forget to spread this fertiliser before rainfall, or water it in well afterwards.
In terms of irrigation, make sure you keep the water up to your trees in the fruit formation period. Drip irrigation close to the soil is ideal, as sprinklers that project moisture up into the canopy are a party invitation for fungal diseases. Peaches have a degree of drought-tolerance but it’s best not to let them come under water stress. Keep the area directly under the tree free from grass and weeds to prevent competition for water and nutrients – a layer of organic mulch may also be applied.
An open-centre vase shape suits peaches well as it ensures adequate light penetration and air movement through the canopy. At planting in the winter, choose two to three strong, well-spaced shoots and remove the rest of the wood. Cut the remaining shoots back by a third and to an outward-facing bud, sealing all cuts immediately with pruning paint. This will be the only winter pruning required.
Upright shoots will develop from these initial shoots in the spring – later in the first summer you can select four or five of these to form the tree’s main leaders. Clear out any other vertical shoots in competition, as well as those growing in the centre of the tree.
The leaders will develop side branches, and from these you need to select flatter, horizontal-growing branches to be your fruiting arms. More upright-growing branches will need to be tamed by pruning into a flatter position or removed, so they don’t compete with the leaders. Trim the tips of the fruiting arms to encourage lateral growth and subsequent fruit production.
Peaches fruit on the previous season’s lateral growth, so you need to keep encouraging the production of fresh new wood. Remove laterals that have fruited in their second year and thin out one year old laterals if there are too many. Keep an eye out and learn to distinguish fruit buds from leaf buds – the former are round and full-bodied, the latter are flatter and pointier. Being able to distinguish the two will help prevent you trimming off the following season’s crop!
Aim to make all maintenance pruning cuts while the weather is still warm and dry to prevent silver leaf (Chondrostereum purpureum) infection – February for earlier cultivars and as soon as possible following harvest for the later cultivars (Sanguine included).
Pests, diseases and what to do about them
Having waxed lyrical about how hardy the Sanguine peach tree is, I don’t want (or even need) to write much here about pests and diseases. Many peach cultivars are susceptible to pests and pathogens but the sum total of plant protection measures applied to all the Sanguine trees I’ve had anything to do with is zero.
The most stand-out characteristic of the Sanguine peach is that it is quite resistant to leaf curl (Taphrina deformans – a fungal relative of bladder plum, T. pruni, which we met last month). Eyewitness accounts deem about 90% of the general population to be immune, with just a few trees showing minor symptoms. I’ve noticed a little gummosis around the stems of some fruit at harvest this year, indicating there may be some bacterial canker (Pseudomonas syringae pv. syringae) infection – as such I’ll keep an eye out for any infected branches that may need pruning off, cuts painting and burning of the infected material. Even the dreaded fungal brown rot (Monilinia fructicola), the heart-breaking destroyer of many a close-to-harvest peach crop, seems to give the Sanguine peach a wide berth. That said, there’s no harm in applying a late-winter clean-up spray of a copper fungicide formulation just as the buds begin to swell.
In terms of insects, aphids can make an appearance in the spring on young growing shoots, and leafroller caterpillars, scale insects and mites may make themselves known, but are unlikely to cause major issues – neem or pyrethrum-based products applied according to label directions may be of assistance if they do.
What to do with your crop
You can expect to harvest a good haul of Sanguine peaches any time from February to late March, perhaps even early April, depending on where you live. Here in the top of the south, our older tree was ripe quite early this year, with its fruit ready in mid-February. The last fell in the first week of March and now our younger tree has fruit on the verge of ripeness (mid-March) – I appreciate the gap as I was just about overwhelmed in the first instance. I really appreciate the complex flavour of raw Sanguine peaches – the flavour is described as somewhere between a white peach and fresh raspberries, but there can be some bitterness and they are an acquired taste. I end up gathering a lot of our fruit as windfalls, so if you’re like me, it’s good to be able to distinguish bruised areas of flesh (solid manky brown) from the natural brown streaky areas some Sanguines have around the stone – this can be either left as-is, pared out with a sharp knife or scooped with a spoon. If you’re bottling, it’s no biggie – but I appreciate some people are fruit aesthetes! The same goes for skinning your peaches – I’m a firm fan of fuzzy peach skin and believe it’s part of the overall peach experience, not to mention an important source of fibre and the fact that many valuable nutrients lurk just below the skin of fruits and vegetables – to me, removing it seems a shame and you hardly notice it once the fruit is stewed or bottled. Another huge advantage for bottlers – the fruit is freestone. Double hurrah. You really need to plant one of these if you haven’t already.
So, how to deal with this bountiful harvest? Number one has to be bottling – use the method in YBFB – Apricots from earlier this year, but decrease the amount of sugar to ¾ cup sugar: 3 cups water. When I find I have copious leftover syrup, I either use this to bottle other fruit (a recent experiment recycled plum syrup, Sanguine syrup and apples to create a ruby-hued apple compote I bottled and have called ‘Each Peach Apple Plum’ after the Janet and Allan Ahlberg book ‘Each Peach Pear Plum’ I adored as a child. It’s complex (the compote). You can also reduce leftover syrup, add some lemon juice and then strain and bottle it as a ruby-hued cordial.
The Sanguine peach is the ultimate crumble fruit – if you’re not a bottler, stew the fruit lightly and pack into ice cream containers or yoghurt tubs to use in the winter explicitly for this purpose. For the topping, I move between a chunky oat-flecked mixture and a more delicate, crumbly number that includes ground almonds. My friend Esther messaged me as I was writing this article and told me she’d just made an apricot almond sponge (for recipe, see YBFB – Almonds, 2021) – but using stewed Sanguine peaches instead. She reckons it’s a winner, so I’ll be making one myself at the next opportunity. I’ve tried dehydrating sliced, skin-on Sanguine peaches but the result is a bit dry and chewy for my liking. I much prefer them as fruit leather, mixed with up to 50% mashed banana, stewed apple or pear prior to blending. Use some leftover fruit syrup if the mixture needs thinning – dehydrate for about 10 hours on a medium heat setting. If you’re not into baking, another friend suggests barbecuing your Sanguine peaches – or if you are BBQ-free, try a George Foreman grill or sandwich press. I can imagine a little butter and brown sugar wouldn’t go amiss here, but perhaps add the sugar after the final flip to avoid carbonising the hotplate. Also on my to-do list is a Sanguine tarte Tatin – I’ll let you know how it goes.
A final use – not for the fruit this time, but the leaves. I stumbled across the following recipe for a cooling aperitif recently, so take a look at this intriguing vin de peche or peach leaf wine from David Lebovitz. As luck may have it, I found a bottle of light red lurking in the cupboard and made a batch yesterday morning before work. The peach leaves impart an almondy flavour, thanks to those toxic cyanogenic glycosides we met back in the almond article – as a word of caution, don’t over-leaf your brew, use young leaves and perhaps consume in moderation! I have also read of peach leaves being used to flavour the milk for custard in a New Zealand publication, so their use as a flavouring is widespread. I read in the comments for this recipe that this aperitif can also be made with white wine and that one reader was indeed keen to make it with Peche de Vigne leaves. Happy experimenting!
Anna-Marie Barnes is an active member of the New Zealand Tree Crops Association who endeavours to grow and preserve as much of her own fresh produce as possible. When the weather’s no good for gardening, she can usually be found inside working on a batch of homemade cheese or soap.
The New Zealand Tree Crops Association is a voluntary organisation promoting interest in useful trees, such as those producing fruit, nuts, timber, fuel, wood, stock fodder, bee forage and other productive crops. Find out more about the NZTCA here: https://treecrops.org.nz/