Stone fruit, also known as summerfruit, are apricots, cherries, nectarines, peaches and plums. They are all members of the prunus genus of trees and shrubs.
None are native to New Zealand. Peaches originated in China, nectarines in central Asia, and apricots probably in China and central Asia. Cherries are native to the Caspian–Black Sea region and as far east as China. The Japanese plum originated in China and the European plum is indigenous to middle Europe. These fruits spread into Europe and northern Africa along the trade routes. European colonists brought them to New Zealand.
There is no record of who introduced stone fruit to New Zealand. Groves of wild peaches, known as ‘Māori peaches’, were found growing along several North Island rivers by the first European settlers. They may have been planted by the explorer James Cook and his crew, or by early 19th-century sealing or whaling gangs. The first peach orchard was planted about 1840.
Stone fruit were widely planted in home and commercial orchards, so it is difficult to estimate the total annual production of any one variety, or how much was eaten locally.
Among the first fruit trees imported to New Zealand were peaches and nectarines raised by Thomas Rivers in England. In the late 19th century locally selected seedlings were found to be more suited to New Zealand’s soil and climate than most introduced cultivars. Favourites were Golden Queen peaches (raised by E. Reeve about 1906), a heavy bearing tree with yellow-fleshed fruit widely used for canning, and Paragon peaches (raised by H. R. Wright about 1903), which were popular for home preserving and desserts.
The Goldmine nectarine, a natural hybrid, was discovered growing in an Auckland garden in the 1890s and became the leading commercial variety in New Zealand as well as Australia.
In Europe, apricots were long considered an aphrodisiac, and they feature for that reason in Shakespeare’s A midsummer night’s dream and John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi. In English folklore, dreaming of apricots is said to be good luck. However, in China the fruit is a symbol of cowardice.
Popular early varieties of apricot were the Roxburgh red (imported from Australia in 1867), Moorpark (from England) and Newcastle (from California).
The European greengage plum was the most popular for canning and making jam. Of the Japanese plums, which are generally earlier flowering and larger, Burbank was the most popular. Omega was the most widely planted plum in New Zealand, and Black Doris was second.
All of the main cherry cultivars have been imported. Dawson, a large, black fruit, is the most popular.
Through the mid-20th century, the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research (DSIR) evaluated peach, nectarine and apricot and some plum cultivars to determine those best suited to different regions. The DSIR also investigated ways to control fungal, bacterial and viral diseases and insect pests.
The summerfruit industry relies heavily on the weather, which affects all aspects of fruit production:
Annual production in each region can vary considerably as a result of these weather conditions.
Stone fruit grows throughout New Zealand in home gardens, but most commercial production comes from Hawke’s Bay and Central Otago. Small amounts are also grown in Canterbury and Nelson almost solely for sale on the New Zealand market. Cherries and apricots are grown in Marlborough.
North Auckland growers once supplied the Auckland market with peaches and plums, but urban sprawl has taken over many orchards in the area. Since the late 1990s, cherry and apricot production in Marlborough has dwindled as grape plantings have expanded or land has been sold to property developers.
The domestic market is supplied by fruit mainly from Central Otago and Hawke’s Bay. Nectarines are the earliest harvested, appearing in shops from late November. By mid-December all stone fruit is usually available and supplies peak in mid-January, with the harvest over by early March.
From about 2000 there was a move away from yellow-fleshed peaches and nectarines to white-fleshed varieties, some of which (such as Coconut Ice) were bred in New Zealand. These are sweeter because they have a low acid content, and are aimed at the Asian market, although exports are minor. However, in 2008 there seemed to be a swing in popularity back to yellow-fleshed varieties. In 2006/7, peaches contributed about 20% of New Zealand’s total stone fruit production, and nectarines 25%. This fruit was almost entirely for local markets.
Crosses between two prunus species are called ‘interspecifics’. The resulting fruits are hybrids and have not been genetically modified. Peacherines are a cross between a Golden Queen peach and a nectarine. Grown in small quantities in some parts of New Zealand, peacherines come on to the market in late February. Pluots and apriums, both apricot–plum crosses, are not grown in New Zealand, though small quantities are sometimes imported from the US.
Apricots are New Zealand’s main stone fruit crop, making up some 30% of the annual total. In 2006/7 about 60% of apricots were exported. Traditionally, they were grown in Central Otago because of the dry climate and well-drained soils – in 1978, 90% of apricots came from there. Since then, they have also been trialled and grown in Hawke’s Bay and Marlborough.
Apricots are usually grafted onto peach or plum rootstocks to ensure vigorous growth.
Plums make up 15–16% of the total stone fruit crop, virtually all of which is for the local market.
Only sweet cherry varieties are grown in New Zealand, and in 2006/7 they made up 8–9% of total stone fruit production. Tart cherries are widely grown in Europe and North America, for processing into jam, confectionary, concentrate and cooking.
In New Zealand, demand for sweet cherries increased through the early 2000s, and peaks each year in the period just before Christmas. In 2006/7 about half of total production was eaten locally. With fewer plantings in Marlborough, most of the pre-Christmas crop was from Hawke’s Bay. These growers have tended to sell locally, but increased plantings and higher prices may encourage exports.
Little stone fruit is now grown for processing, once an important part of the industry. Golden Queen peaches from Hawke’s Bay are canned by Wattie’s, as are small quantities of Black Doris plums. With the closure of the Roxdale cannery, in Roxburgh, Central Otago, in the early 2000s, apricots are no longer canned in New Zealand. Apricots are dried in Central Otago, with volumes fluctuating yearly.
In 2007 there were about 350 growers cultivating just over 2,200 hectares of fruit trees. Very few growers produce just one type of fruit – most grow three or four varieties. For Hawke’s Bay growers, stone fruit is a secondary crop, with pipfruit providing most of their income. In Central Otago, however, stone fruit is the primary crop for most growers.
In the early 1980s the stone fruit industry adopted the name ‘summerfruit’, and Australia and the US have also adopted the name. Summerfruit New Zealand was established in July 1994 to promote and manage the industry. The organisation is funded by a levy, which all growers pay as a percentage of their sales. The levy funds industry activities such as communications (including a website and magazine), researching, exploring new markets and breeding new varieties.
One of the most successful industry-funded research programmes adopted by growers is an integrated pest management programme called SummerGreen. Since 1997 the industry has invested about $1.5 million into research and development in conjunction with the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry Biosecurity New Zealand.
The programme focuses on reducing agrichemical use, monitoring insects, and controlling pests and diseases. The SummerGreen programme conducts workshops and regular grower meetings.
Since SummerGreen began there has been a 90% reduction in the use of organophosphate chemicals in orchards. Approximately 85% of New Zealand stone fruit is grown using SummerGreen methods. The programme is expanding to include research into water quality, fruit nutrition and soil health.
A number of long-established apricot orchards were lost when the Cromwell Gorge was flooded to create Lake Dunstan in Central Otago, as part of the Clyde hydroelectric power project. A small planting of trees from one of those orchards still exists on the shores of the lake between Cromwell and Clyde.
Growers regularly remove old trees and replace them with new varieties. Most stone fruit trees take at least five years to reach commercial production, and growers must manage replanting to ensure continuous returns. The productivity of stone fruit trees usually diminishes after 15 years.
Climate change is a major issue for all of New Zealand’s agricultural and horticultural industries, including stone fruit. Changes in climate will affect the final harvest, and growers’ incomes.
In 2012 the horticultural sector will join New Zealand’s emissions trading scheme, aiming to reduce emissions in orchards and processing plants.
Stone fruit has a short production period and a shelf life of only three or four weeks, which is a factor limiting exports. In comparison, kiwifruit and pipfruit can be stored for months under modified conditions.
The export season starts just before Christmas, with cherry exports largely finished by early February, and apricots by the end of February. There is a plan to breed new apricot varieties to extend the export season into mid-March.
Significant exports of stone fruit began only in the 1970s. In 1971 exports totalled only $58,000, but had increased to $2 million by 1982. The main markets were Australia, the US, French Polynesia, Papua New Guinea and West Germany.
In 2007 Australia was the largest market for New Zealand apricots, although good markets were also developing in the US and Europe. Taiwan was once the main market for cherries, but exports were down from 77% of the total in 2003/4 to 49% in 2006/7. Cherry exports to Korea have steadily increased since that market opened in 1998 – in 2008 it took 22% of export volume.
Thailand is also a high-value market. Cherry exports increased from 5.5% in 2003/4 to 11% in 2006/7, making it New Zealand’s third largest market. This increase was no doubt aided by the removal of tariffs from cherries in 2005.
New Zealand was the first country to gain fumigation-free access to Japan, in 2005, and, for the first time, substantial exports of cherries were shipped the following year. Twenty-two tonnes were shipped and good prices were paid – but it remains an unknown market. If Chile’s negotiation for similar access is successful, New Zealand’s fruit may be less competitive.
Exports were once dominated by nectarines, but that changed in the early 2000s to cherries and apricots, which comprised about 98% of export tonnage. The 2003/4 year was the first that cherry exports exceeded apricots.
The average export price for apricots across all markets has been relatively stable at around $5 per kilo, while cherries fluctuate from $10–12 per kilo. The combined export value of cherries and apricots in 1990 was $1.8 million – by 2006/7 it was $17–18 million, and is expected to grow.
Most cherries and apricots for export come from Central Otago. Some pre-Christmas cherries are still exported from Marlborough, although this was probably less than 25 tonnes in 2006/7.
Internationally, about 150 tonnes of fresh apricots are exported annually, mainly from the northern hemisphere. New Zealand exports just under 1% of this volume, and approximately 2% by value. Australia, Chile and South Africa produce exports at the same time of year as New Zealand, although New Zealand is the only country to supply apricots in February and March.
After being picked, the sugar content in peaches, apricots and nectarines does not increase. This means that they do not actually continue to ripen, though they appear to do so because, as the cell walls soften and the acid content decreases, they become softer and sweeter. Warm conditions speed up this process.
Nectarine exports dropped from 1,800 tonnes, valued at $5–6 million, in the early 1990s, to less than 34 tonnes, worth only $153,716, by 2006/7. Quantities of peaches and plums exported were negligible.
Stone fruit imports have steadily increased since the US gained access to the New Zealand market in 1996. At first, only California was allowed to bring in all five varieties. New Zealand has proved a profitable market – annual imports from California rose from $2.2 million in 1996 to $9.5 million in 2007. More Pacific north-west states were given permission to bring cherries into New Zealand in 2005, and have lodged applications to import other types of stone fruit.
Limited volumes of plums are imported from Chile in March, however no other country has access to New Zealand.
If a 2008 Australian application to bring in all five stone fruits to New Zealand is successful, their fruit would enter the market at the same time as time as New Zealand-grown fruit, providing direct competition.
New Zealand horticulture statistics. Wellington: Economics Division, Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries, 1981.
Wratt, G. S, and H. C. Smith, eds. Plant breeding in New Zealand. Wellington: Butterworths/Department of Scientific and Industrial Research, 1983.