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.
For love and luck
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.