PEACH AND NECTARINE
(Prunus persica)

Peach Picker

Illustrations and photos by "Wildman," clipart from Clipart.com

Wild Apricot Blossoms
Wild Apricot Blossoms

The peach is a small tree with slender, curving branches. The finely toothed, narrow, curving, lance-shaped leaves are 3-5" long, tapering to a sharp point. The five-petaled, radially-symmetrical, pink flowers are 1/2ó2" across, appearing in early spring, before the leaves open.

The wild peach is like the commercial version, yellow with red blush, downy skin, and gently grooved. It ripens from mid- to late summer. Like all members its genus, there is one large pit. The inner kernel closely resembles an almondóa close relative without the fleshy fruit. The peach has been cultivated for millennia in Europe and Asia. Peach sculptures and porcelains date back to ancient China, when the fruit was cared for under glass.

Peach Drawing
Wild Peaches
Peaches grow throughout the United States, wherever they've escaped cultivation. Soon after purchasing my first wild food field guide, I explored an overgrown empty lot to look for asparagus. There was neither asparagus nor anything else I could identify, although subsequent explorations turned up a peach tree. Later on, I was amazed to find others in out-of-the-way places in city parks, in fields, thickets, and disturbed areas such as roadsides. People eating peaches probably threw away the seeds, which grow quite readily.
Wild Peach

Unfortunately the fruits I find are usually infested with insects. I had better luck with wild nectarines. I was leading a tour in Central Park late one summer, when I spotted a peach tree. After announcing my find, a student reached under the foliage and pulled out a delicious, ripe nectarine. There was plenty for everyone.

In actuality, nectarines are smooth-skinned peaches, and peaches are fuzzy nectarines. Thatís why I was fooled. The foliage is identical. A genetic mutation, like that which creates albinos, makes the difference. Sometimes the two fruits grow on the same tree, and you may even find fruits that are half nectarine and half peach. The popular idea that nectarines are hybrids of peaches and plums is simply erroneous.

These wild nectarines were smaller and less juicy than the peaches, but these were sweet and delicious, with no insects. This is the only nectarine tree Iíve ever found. It taught me that wherever you live, nature is full of surprises.

Soon after, I found another unexpected close relative of peaches and nectarines, in an overgrown field near the seashoreóa wild apricot tree (Prunus armeniaca). Itís a small tree, with medium-sized, simple, alternate, wedge-shaped, finely-toothed leaves. Apricot pits litter the ground under it all year, and the fruit is identical to commercial apricots (but much tastier), so itís easy to identify. Apricots arenít supposed to grow wild in the North (the blossoms open so early in the spring, theyíre vulnerable to frost), but they donít seem to realize it. I donít know how common they are, but keep your eyes open for them. You may find them escaped from cultivation in sandy fields and thickets across the country, where apricot-eating people tossed away their pits.

Wild Apricots
Peaches contain large quantities of beta-carotene and potassium, as well as calcium, phosphorous, and vitamin C. Virtually everyone eats or knows how to prepare peaches, but few people know that the peach is an important medicinal plant. Peach leaf infusion or peach bark decoction is a demulcentósoothing to the mucus membranes. Herbalists use it for stomachaches and digestive disorders, and to clear out the intestines and the kidneys. It also has sedative, diuretic, and laxative properties.

Peach pit decoction is also very soothing and stimulating to the stomachóa good stomach tonic to take before or during mealsóto stimulate enzyme activity and relax the nervous system. Caution: Donít eat the raw kernel inside the pit. It contains hydrocyanic acid, a gastric irritant (destroyed by heat) which could potentially release toxic cyanide.

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