The peach crop, like many of our other fruits in northern Michigan, is variable at best. Statewide, the peach crop has been estimated to have suffered a 95 percent loss this season.
But northern Michigan peach lovers should not lose heart; there are area growers that have peach orchards that escaped the spring frosts and beautiful peaches are now available at local farmers' markets, fruit stands, and grocery stores.
Peaches are members of the stone fruit family, aptly named because they have a pit or a stone in the center. The way that the fruit surrounds this stone categories peaches into two groups: clingstone or freestone. Some peaches are a blend of both and are called semi-freestone.
Flesh of clingstone peaches clings fairly tightly to the stone, and these peaches are usually the first to be harvested. The flesh is often yellow with a brighter red color closest to the stone. The texture is soft and is juicy and sweet, which makes this category of peach perfect for dessert.
These peaches also are preferred by many for jellies, jams, and canning, and are worth the effort to remove the fruit from the stone.
Freestone peaches have that name because the stone is easily removed from this flesh, which makes these peaches good for eating fresh. Due to the ease of removing the pit, freestone peaches are found more commonly in the grocery store. Freestone fruit tends to be larger than clingstones with a firmer, less juicy texture. These peaches are still sweet and are excellent for canning and baking.
The most famous peach of all hails from our great state. The Red Haven peach is the standard by which all other peaches are judged. In fact, when our Michigan State peach breeder Dr. Bill Shane evaluates new peach varieties, there is a category that shows how many days the new peach can be harvested before or after Red Haven. In fact, the Red Haven was introduced by Dr. Stanley Johnston of Michigan State University in 1940. The variety originally was grown in South Haven, and Dr. Johnston went on to breed a whole line of peaches in the Haven series.
It's getting up there in age, but Red Haven remains a perennial favorite by both growers and consumers.
Many new varieties have hit the stands in recent years, and the list is too long to mention them all, but seek out your local peach farmer and ask him or her for their favored peach variety. They surely will point you in the right direction. But you better do so soon, before all the peaches are gone for this short season.
Dr. Nikki Rothwell is director of the Northwest Michigan Horticultural Station in Leelanau County's Bingham Township.