In 1966, Michigan placed this historical marker at the South Haven Experiment Station commemorating Stanley Johnston’s work and the peaches he released. Johnston is pictured with the marker.
Until the Redhaven peach came along in 1940, Elberta held the title as the most-planted peach variety in the world. After that came a flip-flop. By the 1960s, Redhaven was gaining that distinction and would hold it for the remainder of the twentieth century.
Redhaven, bred by Stanley Johnston at the South Haven Experiment Station in southwest Michigan, was one of the earlier deliberately bred peach varieties. When Johnston released that peach, he couldn’t know he was establishing a benchmark by which other peaches would be measured. Redhaven sets the calendar. Other peach varieties are characterized by how long before or after Redhaven they ripen.
The Elberta is a freestone peach, large, flavorful, and juicy, but mostly yellow in color and late in season, maturing about 30 days after Redhaven. When Johnston starting breeding peaches in 1924, 85 percent of the Michigan crop was Elberta.
When Johnston created the Redhaven, he knew what he was looking for in a peach and chose parents he thought could deliver those features. He wanted a firm peach that would ripen a lot earlier than Elberta. He got that, plus the additional features of a lush red color not seen in other varieties and decent resistance to bacterial spot.
Johnston was born in Roscommon, Michigan, in 1898. His father was an extension agent in the early years of the Cooperative Extension Service. Johnston went to Michigan State College (now University), was a baseball player of some skill and captain of the team, and on graduation was hired as superintendent of the South Haven Experiment Station in 1920. He would hold that position until his death in 1969.
In an article published in HortScience in 2006, William R. (Dick) Okie, the peach breeder at the USDA’s Southeastern Fruit and Tree Nut Research Laboratory in Byron, Georgia, characterized Johnston as one of five outstanding peach breeders in what he called the “second generation” of peach breeders, using modern methods of creating and evaluating hybrids. Johnston worked with other fruits as well and is considered the father of Michigan’s large blueberry industry.
During his career, Johnston evaluated more than 27,000 peach seedlings, according to Okie, and released eight, all with “haven” in their name. Redhaven was his third release in a line that started with Halehaven in 1932 and Kalhaven in 1938. A cross between the first two resulted in Redhaven. Later releases include Fairhaven, Sunhaven, Richhaven, Glohaven, Cresthaven, Sweethaven, Newhaven, and Jayhaven, the latter three released by his successor R. L. Andersen after Johnston died.
Johnston started working with an old variety, J.H. Hale, which had Elberta as a parent, and crossed it with local varieties called Kalamazoo (to get Kalhaven) and South Haven (to get Halehaven).
Writing about it later, Johnston said the Redhaven got its large fruit size, firm flesh, tough skin, bright yellow ground color, and a moderate amount of bright red skin color from J.H. Hale; its earliness, hardiness, and bright red skin color from South Haven; and hardiness and a strong tree structure from Kalamazoo.
According to Michigan State University cherry breeder Amy Iezzoni, “Before Redhaven appeared, the perfect peach color was a golden undercolor with 25 percent red blush. Redhaven, the first of the red-skinned peach cultivars, set a new standard for peach color and commanding premium prices.
By modern standards, however, Redhaven isn’t all that red. “Redhaven does not have enough red coloration in some years to compete on the wholesale market,” said Bill Shane, who is Michigan State University’s current peach breeder.
Redhaven had an unprecedented ability to adapt in all the important freestone peach growing areas of the world, Iezzoni said. Three characteristics of Redhaven include vigor, high productivity, and above average cold hardiness. Thorough and early thinning is required to obtain peaches of large size. The fruit’s brilliant red color develops while the peach is still firm.
To commemorate Johnston’s contributions to the Michigan fruit industry, the state erected an historical marker at the South Haven station in 1966, which lists the eight peach cultivars released during his long career.