"I am endeavoring to make a collection of the choicest kinds of peaches for Monticello."
- Thomas Jefferson to Richard Threlkeld, March 26, 18071
Just as the role of the apple reflected the diversity and melting-pot culture of early American life, so was the peach an early image for the bounty and luxury of the New World's natural productions. By the beginning of the eighteenth century, peach trees had naturalized so abundantly throughout the southeastern and mid-Atlantic colonies that John Lawson said they grew as luxuriantly as weeds: "we are forced to take a great deal of Care to weed them out, otherwise they make our Land a Wilderness of Peach-Trees."2
Thomas Jefferson regarded the peach as a fancy delicacy for the table and, if one measures his appreciation of a fruit by the frequency with which it was planted, or by the number of varieties in his collection, the peach would easily be considered his favorite fruit tree. While peach varieties were seldom mentioned in eighteenth-century Virginia literature and, in fact, George Washington noted only two specific varieties for his Mount Vernon orchard, Jefferson cultivated over thirty-eight in his south orchard alone. The peach was the queen bee, the workhorse of tree fruits at Monticello; a luxury because of its abundance, its usefulness, but also, simply, because Thomas Jefferson liked peaches.
Although peaches were commonly grown in Old World gardens and orchards, spreading from Asia on the tides of civilization, most European explorers mistakenly thought the peach was an indigenous American product. From Pennsylvania south, peach trees merged into the surrounding vegetation so completely that the earliest natural historians, even John Bartram, America's first great botanist, assumed the peach was a native tree. In fact, the peach was introduced either by the Spanish settlers in St. Augustine, Florida, in 1565 or by the French to an isolated Gulf of Mexico settlement in 1562. It was probably grown in Mexico at an even earlier date. Native American peach culture migrated north with the travels of Jesuit and Franciscan missionaries and with the Native Americans themselves. At the same time, the cultivated trees escaped into the landscape. William Penn observed wild, Indian peaches as far north as Philadelphia in 1683, and a few years later John Banister wrote that, in Virginia, "Peaches and Nectarines I believe to be Spontaneous ... for the Indians have, and ever had greater variety, and finer sorts of them than we."3 Luigi Castiglioni noted in 1787 that, "Peach trees are so abundant in Virginia that often, upon cutting away a pine wood ... they cover the whole terrain."4 It seems odd that today there is no place where peach trees dominate "the whole terrain" in Virginia, although they are reported as relatively uncommon in about half of its counties.
Aside from the trees cultivated by Native Americans and the naturalized Indian peaches, the European settlers in Virginia planted the fruit in enormous quantities, ultimately defining a distinctive American form of fruit growing quite different from the European tradition. Peaches were noted by John Smith in Jamestown as early as 1629, and in 1676 Thomas Glover said, "Here [in Virginia] are likewise great Peach-Orchards, which bear such an infinite quantity of Peaches, that at some Plantations they beat down to the Hoggs fourty bushels in a year."5 Robert Beverley also described the "luxury of the peach" in early Virginia orchards: " ... some good Husbands plant great Orchards of [peaches], purposely for their Hogs; and others make a Drink of them, which they call Mobby, and either drink it as Cider, or Distill it off for Brandy."6 Although Jefferson recorded the production of mobby in 1782 and 1795, it is difficult to determine whether he fermented it further into brandy.7
Intensive peach culture spread as far north as Pennsylvania, where Peter Kalm observed, "every countryman had an orchard full of peach trees, which were covered with such quantities of fruit, that we could scarcely walk in the orchard, without treading upon those peaches which were fallen off; many of which were always left on the ground."8 The peach was also the standard Southern commodity, as William White, from Athens, Georgia, attested as late as 1859: "Indeed, the peach is the favorite, and in many instances the only, fruit tree cultivated by our planters."9
Jefferson found many uses for the peach besides mobby or as a dessert fruit. Mary Randolph's The Virginia Housewife contains six recipes for preparing peaches, including ice cream and peach preserves. "Peach chips" were sliced peaches, boiled, sugared, and sun-dried.10 Jefferson noted in a letter to his daughter Martha in 1815 that Cate, one of the Monticello slaves, "is busy drying peaches for you."11
When Jefferson wrote his practical-minded son-in-law, Thomas Mann Randolph, in 1792, he described a unique use for the peach tree as fire wood: " ... 5. acres of peach trees at 21. feet apart will furnish dead wood enough to supply a fire place through the winter, and may be kept up at the trouble of only planting about 70. peach stones a year."12
The tree's aggressive growth habit and its ornamental qualities make the peach a fine candidate for a living fence. In 1794, Jefferson recorded the planting of nearly 900 peach trees as "dividing lines" between his agricultural fields both at Monticello and at Lego, an adjacent plantation across the Rivanna River.13 The Duke de La Rochefoucauld-Liancourt observed these trees, a "single row" around the fields, in 1796.14
The peach is also a handsome ornamental tree with its dark, rich foliage and striking display of pink or white flowers. Jefferson noted the flowering of peaches at Monticello twelve times in his garden book and other memoranda,15 and he also planted the double flowering peach, which is sterile and therefore a pure ornamental, in a shrubbery immediately around the house at Monticello in 1805.
Jefferson's collection of peaches was an extraordinary assemblage of Old and New World varieties, early and late producers, freestones and clingstones. He received young, budded trees from the William Prince Nursery in New York and the Thomas Main and Alexander Hepburn nurseries in Washington;16 he obtained peach stones from friends like George Mason, Timothy Matlack, Isaac A. Coles, James Taylor, and William Meriwether.17 He was sent a shipment of choice Italian varieties by Philip Mazzei.18 He received local types from his own Monticello workmen, such as James Balyal, who worked in the vegetable garden.19 Many of the Mazzei varieties were probably unique introductions into American gardens, including the Vaga Loggia, the Maddalena, and the apple peach. There were many famous American varieties in the Monticello collection as well, among them the Heath Cling, America's first named peach, the Oldmixon Cling, Morris' Red Rareripe, and the Indian Blood Cling. Nearly half of the thirty-eight varieties grown by Jefferson at Monticello were described in the pomological literature – a tribute to the depth of his collection and the sincerity of his interest in fine fruit.
Today, Monticello's orchards are planted with forty-five nineteenth century varieties.
- Peter Hatch, 1/98. Originally published as, "'We Abound in the Luxury of the Peach'," Twinleaf 10 (1998): 9-11.