Food scholar David Shields of Columbia and Slow Food Charleston are bringing back the tasty lemon cling peach | Photo by Ruta Smith

Not all treasure hunters wear fedoras. Some wear overalls or baggy jeans and you can identify them by the fevered glow in their eyes as they talk about collards and rice and watermelon and the lemon cling peach.

These modern-day treasure hunters are on the prowl for heirloom seeds, treasures of produce that can be as rare as any jeweled prize.

Heirloom foods didn’t used to be rarities. They were just considered food, not “heirloom.” Before the mid 19th century, humans had evolved to know that, if food tasted good, it wasn’t poison and we’d just eat it.

But then, we got in our own way in the name of progress.

“In the middle of the 19th century, a decision was made and people began saying we need plants that produce more grains per head or more apples on a tree,” said Columbia’s David Shields, one of the nation’s foremost food scholars. “They bred for that rather than for flavor.”

That was followed with plants bred for disease resistance, drought resistance and ability to withstand shipping. Fields were blanketed with sturdy wheat that could stand up to almost anything. Anything, that is, except disease that targeted wheat specifically, and one other thing: the human taste bud.  

People who knew food began to notice that it wasn’t just nostalgia that made them believe food didn’t taste as good anymore. Bread was bland, tomatoes were meh and watermelons were more water than melon. Farmers realized that banking solely on one popular plant could be devastating if a disease could wipe out entire fields of that plant.

All of which brings us to today. Scholars like Shields travel to old family farms and rescue random bags of seeds, and farmers like Glenn Roberts of Anson Mills and Nat Bradford of Seneca plant those seeds and nurture them as though they are growing gold and not rice, corn or watermelons.

A real treasure

One such golden treasure is the lemon cling peach, a good example of the obstacles in bringing back heirlooms.

Slow Food Charleston, a nonprofit dedicated to “good, clean and fair food for all,” worked with Shields to add the lemon cling peach to the international group’s Ark of Taste, a catalog of foods about to go extinct. The Ark of Taste includes more than 3,500 products from more than 100 countries, including some 200 from the United States.  

“We really wanted to pour ourselves into something that can be grown by community members and not just professionals, and something that would have a long-range impact on the community. When David [Shields] came back with lemon cling peach [in 2017], it felt like a really good fit,” said Carrie Larson, executive director of Slow Food Charleston.

The peach showed up in South Carolina in the late 1700s and, because of its strong peachy flavor, quickly became the go-to for peach brandy and canned peaches. California grew the trees at an industrial level for its commercial canned peach industry. But then the lemon cling fell to more abundant cousins, the peaches more suitable for industrial production. Soon, Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello became one of the few places retaining the lemon cling peach.

The Ark of Taste approved Slow Food Charleston’s project, but it would take years before South Carolina would benefit.

An orchard in Albemarle, Virginia, agreed to grow the trees grafted with original lemon cling trees, some from Monticello and some found by Monticello staff eager to help. In 2018, germination was affected by a warm year. In 2019, a windstorm wiped out the entire crop. Finally in 2021, 150 of the trees were ready for delivery to South Carolina.

Locals selected by Slow Food Charleston, including the Charleston Parks Conservancy, the Green Heart Project and the MUSC Urban Farm, among others, picked up their trees and planted them around Charleston. Trees also went to commercial farms around the state, and some went to home growers.

“We’re still waiting for surveys to be created and returned, but I know this summer, a lot of people saw their first harvest,” Larson said.

One hiccup was that six trees had been placed with the Clemson’s Coastal Research and Education Center at Musser Fruit Research Farm in Seneca. Unfortunately, Clemson insists on a sterile orchard.

“They were supposed to enter a formal vegetable trial as our research partner, but devastatingly, they ripped up all of the trees and took them to a burn pit because they were contaminated with a common soil pathogen,” Larson said. “I spoke to quite a few people at Clemson and it wouldn’t have affected the commercial viability of the trees, but they insist on a sterile orchard.”

Still, Larson is enthusiastic about the project and is looking forward to a new round of lemon cling peach trees, as well as saving other heirlooms.

“We’re really interested in the fish of the southeastern Atlantic and, as a chapter, we’re going to be investing time into starting to add Slow Fish into our advocacy work,” she said.

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