The poet T.S. Eliot rhetorically asked if he would dare to eat the fruit of prunus persica. The rock band Presidents of the United States of America wrote an entire song about the goodness of the fruit, which they called nature’s candy. In China, its birthplace, the plant is associated with luck, prosperity, longevity, abundance, and virtue. The gods themselves became immortal by eating this fruit, the delicious peach.
First grown in northern China, prunus persica appeared in areas afflicted with soil erosion and overgrazing. It is a plant that literally heals the earth, as its roots pull together badly eroded soil, allowing the soil to build up again. Perhaps it is this association, along with the sheer goodness of the fruit, which anyone who has eaten it can attest to, that makes it a symbol of life. In Korea, where ancestor veneration is a religious cornerstone, peach blossoms, branches, and fruits are excluded from altars to the ancestors in the belief that they drive spirits away. The peach drives away death itself.
European cultures have never ascribed such mystical properties to the peach. By the time it was introduced to the West, an animistic worldview no longer prevailed, and there was little place for sacred plants. Classical mythology assigns attributes associated with the peach in Asia to other fruits instead, such as the apple and the pomegranate. Yet even in Europe, the peach has always carried somewhat mystical erotic associations. French names for particular varieties of peach especially bear this out… one variety is called teton de Venus, nipple of Venus.
Prunus persica takes its scientific name from Persia, now Iran, which was the gateway through which it passed from Asia to Europe. In the belief that the peach originally came from Persia, it was given this scientific name. Yet its botanical history and its mythological and cultural associations clearly place its origins in China.
Peaches were introduced to the New World early on in the days of colonialism. Once there, they spread faster than the colonists, as Native Americans, taken with the peach, planted them and traded them everywhere. William Penn, founder of a colony in the present day state of Pennsylvania, wrote that all the Native American plantations (many of the east coast tribes at the time were settled farmers) were growing peaches. That Penn found this worthy of remark implies that white farmers were not growing peaches at such an incredible rate.
Yet for the settlers too, peaches were a valuable commodity. One of the earliest foods to be widely canned, peaches were taken west by many a wagon train. During the California gold rush, peaches were in such demand that they sold for five dollars a can in Sacramento, a princely sum in the mid 1800s. To put it in perspective, the best paid laborers of the time earned about one or two dollars a day.
To know what prunus persica is, though, we do not really need to know all of its history. One bite of a ripe peach can convince even the most skeptical among us that it is a slice of heaven, the fruit of immortality.