Elberta is not highly colored, but it has good flavor, bears dependably, and is widely adapted—traits the helped it dominate the peach industry for nearly a century.
Elberta, probably the most widely known peach variety ever, was the first large, firm, shippable peach that was yellow-fleshed, freestone, and melting. It had good flavor and was a dependable, heavy bearer. It was the peach that made Georgia the Peach State.
But it was also widely adapted. So, Elberta peaches were in the market for many weeks, starting in mid-July (early in those days) from Georgia and later from South Carolina, Maryland, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Michigan (in mid-September), and from the West as well. Until Redhaven came along in the 1940s, Elberta made up 85 percent of Michigan’s peach crop.
Elberta is a late peach, maturing about 30 days later than the Redhaven that after a century stole much of its thunder in the northern states.
Dr. W.R. “Dick” Okie, the Agricultural Research Service peach breeder in Byron, Georgia, wrote about Elberta in a chapter in the book The Peach: Botany, Production, and Uses, and also in A History of Fruit Varieties, published in 1989 by Good Fruit Grower.
The big genetic breakthrough that led to Elberta came from the introduction of the Chinese Cling in 1850, which came to the United States directly from China. China was the original home of peaches, but most peaches came to the United States indirectly.
“At that time, most peaches were white-fleshed English and French cultivars or their descendants,” Okie wrote.
The Elberta story begins in 1857. A Georgia banker, L.C. Plant, purchased an assortment of budded peach trees from China, including Chinese Cling, and sent them to Colonel Lewis Rumph, who set them out in the family orchard near Marshallville, Georgia. The Chinese Cling produced very nice fruit, so Mrs. Rumph saved some seeds and gave them to her grandson, Samuel, who planted them in 1870. One of those trees bore exceptionally fine yellow freestone peaches.
This tree came to be called Elberta, named after Samuel’s wife, Clara Elberta Moore Rumph.
Samuel Rumph was no mere hobby farmer. An entrepreneur, he experimented with shipping Elbertas to New York City—and they arrived in good shape. He began growing and shipping them, and established Willow Lake Nursery to provide trees to other growers. He also designed a box on casters that held six crates of peaches plus ice that could be loaded onto box cars, shipped to port, and loaded on steamers bound to New York. He later developed a peach shipping refrigerator and a rigid mortised-end peach crate.
The combination of the Elberta variety and the shipping innovations earned Rumph the reputation as “father of the Georgia peach industry,” which is noted on an historical marker at his home in Marshallville. That home, a mansion, was built in 1907 after his successful achievements in the peach business.
The Elberta peach has generated a lot of questions about its ancestry, Okie said. Apparently, Chinese Cling carried the genes to produce a melting, yellow-fleshed freestone like Elberta, when crossed with another peach in Rumph’s orchard. A key was the pollen-sterility of the Chinese Cling—an unusual trait also carried by Georgia Belle, another well-liked variety descended from Chinese Cling. Samuel’s wife’s family led the introduction of that peach.
“Elberta was found to be much firmer and widely adapted, such that it was grown from the southeast to the northeast, providing a continuous supply of this cultivar all season long. Yellow-fleshed peaches show less bruising than the white-fleshed peaches, and gradually yellow came to predominate,” Okie wrote in The Peach.
“Elberta is now grown in only a few places, but the name remains one of the few that the public recognizes. Elberta is found in the parentage of most commercial peaches developed in the USA. It is unlikely that any new cultivar will become as widely known among the general public as did Elberta.”