florida peachesGene Joyner inspects a small peach developed by University of Florida botanists for growing in South Florida. He served as director of horticulture at the Palm Beach County Extension Office for 35 years. / Photo by Jan Norris

This is the first half of a story on Florida peaches. Part 2 will run on Friday, Dec. 8.

From spring into summer, you probably enjoy Georgia peaches that are juicy and sweet. During the summer, California orchards swing into action. And by November through early April, when the domestic crop is finished, stores tout imports from Chile, where the weather is warm.


But just when this international array of fresh peaches is winding down and there’s no tree-ripened fruit left on the market, Florida peaches are ripening on the trees.

Due to our climate, Florida can provide tree-ripened peaches from late March through early May when other sources are unavailable, explains Mercy Olmstead, assistant professor and extension specialist in the Horticultural Sciences Department at the University of Florida (UF) in Gainesville.

“We have a neat opportunity waiting for us here in Florida,” says John Sizemore who co-owns Sizemore Farms in Polk County, where he started raising peaches in 2012.

Florida Peaches have a 500-year history 

Florida peaches have been around since the Spaniards arrived on our shores. But improved varieties that thrive in our subtropical climate have only been available in the United States since about the 1980s.

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Jose Chaparro, of the University of Florida, helped to develop these UFBest peaches, as well as nine other varieties. / Courtesy of UF/IFAS

That’s when peach breeders at UF in Gainesville started releasing new cultivars. These were developed using germ-plasm from peaches that grow in Southern China, crossed with peaches that have been successfully raised in cooler parts of the United States. (Germ-plasm is the genetic material from germ cells.)

Although these cultivars have made it possible to grow peaches in subtropical areas, they have also changed the qualities that consumers can expect in the peaches. So buying today’s Florida peach requires some education.

First, due to the changes in these cultivars, you can’t depend upon a ripe fruit feeling soft. Instead, to determine ripeness, you need to look at the stem end of the peach. Look past the lush pink blush to the background color of the peach. If it’s a cheerful yellow color, the peach is ripe.

Also, the size of the fruit may be smaller than what you’d expect from peaches grown in Georgia or California. Florida peaches run from about 2 to 2½ inches in diameter. Some farmers are able to get a part of their crop to grow to 3 inches, but that’s not consistent.

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Ceylon peaches ripening on their tree. Ceylon peaches were brought over from China and, to ensure they would grow in Florida, combined with root stock that resists nematodes. / Contributed

And instead of having flesh that virtually melts in your mouth (technically called “melting flesh”), Florida peaches have been bred to remain firm even when completely ripe (technically called “non-melting flesh”) so that they can be shipped more easily.

Florida peaches taste great

But you can’t beat the honey-sweet flavor of a ripe Florida peach. “If grown right, these peaches have an incredible flavor,” says farmer Sizemore. “They are as tasty as or even tastier than any peach I’ve ever had.”

You’ll be seeing more and more Florida peaches on the market as their popularity with the public and growers increases. Although the government doesn’t keep statistics on this crop, because the numbers are relatively small, UF’s Olmstead says there currently are about 1,500 acres of peaches in the state and 65 growers.

Compare this to Georgia and South Carolina, where about 15,000 acres in each state are dedicated to peaches. Nevertheless, Florida peaches already are distributed to over 40 states and Canada.

In fact, in the Sunshine State, farmland devoted to peaches has tripled since 2002. U.S. Department of Agriculture figures for that year showed there were 490 acres of peaches in the state.

Some Florida growers, such as Sizemore, often diversify into peaches as they lose their citrus orchards to citrus greening or to huanglongbing (HLB), a bacterial disease spread by the Asian citrus psyllid. The disease causes citrus plants to decline and die.

A deadly, and expensive, disease

Citrus greening has destroyed more than 130,000 acres of citrus in Florida since 2005, and the disease has cost the state nearly $5 billion in the last decade, according to the Florida Department of Citrus.

Jose Chaparro, associate professor in the Fruit Tree Breeding and Genetics Program at the University of Florida in Gainesville, is working to spark the industry by continuing to develop peach varieties that not only grow in subtropical areas but that also have many of the qualities which appeal to customers.

His breeding experiments have built on those that began at the university almost 65 years ago, when work began on the first low-chill varieties. These are peaches that don’t need a winter chill to help the fruit grow and ripen properly.

Creating a new fruit variety is a long and tedious process that can take from eight to 10 years before it’s released to farmers, explains Chaparro. But breeders have persevered, and during Chaparro’s 13-year tenure at UF, he has released 10 varieties of subtropical peaches that include Flordabest, UFGlo, UFSharp, UFSun and UFBest; the most recent is UFGem.

Next week: Why peaches need cold weather, and what University of Florida researchers are doing to develop “low-chill” varieties that are nonetheless tasty.