The lemon cling peach derives its name from its oblong shape and projecting swollen point, which give it the appearance of a lemon, and the fact that its pit “clings” to the flesh (peaches are generally divided into “clingstone” and “freestone” varieties). The precise origins of this variety are unknown, but it is believed to have appeared in Charleston, South Carolina, in the mid-18th century. Evidence for its Carolina provenance lies in the fact that nurseryman Robert Kennedy of New York made the variety available in the northern US under the name “Kennedy’s Carolina,” around 1800. The lemon cling was among the first native-bred peaches recognized by the American Pomological Society, which listed the variety in 1862.
In the Southeastern US, lemon cling peaches ripen in the second half of September. They are very large, reaching a weight of up to 340 grams. They have yellow skin with a reddish blush; the flesh is firm and yellow, becoming slightly red where it attaches to the stone. This variety has always been highly regarded for its juiciness and rich flavor. In his book The Fruits and Fruit Trees of Monticello (1998), Peter Hatch reports that the early American politician Timothy Matlack, when sending saplings of the Kennedy Carolina (i.e. lemon cling) peach to Thomas Jefferson, described the fruit as “the most juicy and highest flavored of all the Clingstone peaches. For preserving it is the best of all peaches. It retains more of the peach flavor in brandy than any other.” Indeed, the lemon cling was especially popular for making peach brandy and brandied peaches. South Carolina’s first cookbook, The Carolina Receipt Book (1832), by a Lady of Charleston, includes a recipe for “Peaches in Brandy” that calls for gently simmering the fruit with sugar in brandy and then storing the mixture in jars. All over the country, in areas where the temperance movement was not particularly strong and where the climate permitted, lemon cling peaches were planted for use in distilling. In Carolina’s second cookbook, The Carolina Housewife (1847), Sarah Rutledge specifically indicates that her recipes for peach preserves should be made with local cling peaches. Following the civil war, the lemon cling became popular in the canning industry; by the 1880s it was an intensively cultivated variety in California, and remained so until about 1930. It was cultivated on an industrial scale in parts of the US into the 1950s. However, the lemon cling was hardly grown in South Carolina, its place of origin, after the 1880s; in 1907, a nursery in Charleston offered 35 peach varieties, but the lemon cling was not among them.
In the middle of the 20th century, due to competition from imported peaches and the need to drive down the price of domestic fruit, the lemon cling peach began to decline as growers shifted to improved varieties that were more productive and better suited to mechanized harvest. The lemon cling has not been a commercial variety for half a century and, by 2010, it was almost extinct, with entire orchards having been uprooted in California. Young trees remain difficult to obtain from commercial nurseries. Today, the variety’s survival depends on individuals, associations, and foundations interested in its historical value and enthusiastic about its renowned flavor.