The Accidental Peach Tree

The harvest is in at the Chancognie House and I thank you for following the trials and tribulations of cultivating peaches here in downtown Charleston. I received quite a few questions about the peach tree, so I thought that I would provide a short history – like many things here at the Chancognie House, my cultivation of peaches was very much accidental.

The tree produces clingstone peaches which are an early variety that is typically smaller than later freestone peaches.

Shortly after moving in, a previous owner came to see the garden and told me about some of the plants that had been lost over the years, one of which was a peppermint peach tree. The tree has striking white, light pink and dark pink flowers when in bloom, so I decided to replant it. Several weeks later, my landscapers brought a tree in a cardboard box. It was a bare root tree, only about five feet tall and I must admit that I did not have high hopes for its survival. But I watered it faithfully through its first steamy Charleston summer and it grew significantly.

The following spring, it started to produce flowers, all pale pink. It also started producing fruit. I asked the landscapers if this was unusual and they assured me that this tree would produce ornamental fruit. But as the fruit grew larger, I started to question its ornamental nature. Soon enough, about a dozen fruit peaches were growing on the small tree. I was quite excited about this development since peaches are my favorite fruit. I was able to harvest a few that first season and the ones that reached some point of ripeness, although small, were sweet and juicy.

The peach tree during its formative years.

At the end of the first season, my landscapers warned me that it would probably not thrive since they had never heard of anyone successfully growing peaches downtown, but to everybody’s surprise, the tree grew substantially over the course of the year and I got busy organizing recipes for peach cobbler, peach ice cream, peach jam and more. It seemed like destiny for me to cultivate fruit here since a January 13, 1813 description of the property in the City Gazette mentioned “a handsome garden and orchard, neatly laid out with a variety of fruit and flowering trees.”

Peach smoothies are a favorite here at the Chancognie House.

My excitement was tempered early in season two. There are reasons why people do not cultivate peach trees downtown, mostly having to do with squirrels. The peaches had barely started to turn pink when the squirrels started stripping them from the tree. Especially frustrating, as some of you may have noticed from my Instagram posts this spring, was that they would often just take a few little nibbles from multiple peaches.

Could the squirrels not just eat one entire peach instead of ruining two?

So how did Chancognie manage to have a lovely garden full of fruit trees? While there undoubtedly are many reasons, a significant one was that he did not have to deal with squirrels. It may be hard to believe now, but squirrels have not always been city dwellers. Although they were occasionally kept as exotic pets as early as the late 18th century, according to a paper published by Etienne Benson in The Journal of American History, squirrels were first introduced into urban settings along the East coast in the mid-19th century, starting in Philadelphia. The practice migrated to other urban centers as a source of entertainment for city dwellers without easy access to natural settings. At first, city residents were encouraged to feed and interact with the squirrels. As a result, they quickly embraced urban life and their populations dramatically increased – a fact to which I can certainly attest.

The peach tree today.

My attempts at discouraging the squirrels from pilfering the peaches, such as hanging shiny objects and moth balls in the tree have been unsuccessful. The squirrels were utterly undaunted by the fake owl that I put in the tree, so if you have any suggestions for warding them off, I would love to hear them. In addition to the squirrels, the peach tree has faced additional hurdles, such as half of it falling over in a storm a few years ago and a lack of proper pruning. The height does discourage four-legged and two-legged parties from purloining the uppermost peaches, but makes harvesting a challenge. Despite all of this, the tree has prolifically produced peaches year after year, so here’s to the harvest of 2020!

Always in pursuit of one perfect peach….

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