It will come as a surprise to many, who believe Aurillac is France’s coldest city, that peaches actually grow here. I visited Claude’s garden on 8 August, where he has been cultivating this fruit for almost half a century.
‘As Aurillac is famous for being France’s coldest city, I bravely chose to wait until March to visit them…’ This 2015 comment in the Shanghai Young Bakers blog1 shows that if Aurillac is known abroad for the high standards of its bakery school, it also has the reputation of a cold place that spreads far beyond the country’s borders.
This reputation comes from the weather forecast on national TV, which ‘often indicates Aurillac as the coldest city of France in the morning’2. At 600 meters above sea level, the highest city on the map, it can indeed feel chilly.
Aurillac is my hometown. I know its fresh invigorating sunny mornings and wonderfully warm afternoons. Morning temperatures may be low, but we have higher temperature ranges than most other French cities3, which allows for the warm afternoon feeling. I also like Aurillac’s climate oceanic influences and the quality of the air here4, which I find a major asset after living for decades in larger cities.
However pleasant a place Aurillac is to live, I didn’t think peaches could grow here. I remember a peach tree that didn’t last for very long in our garden when I was a kid. I have eaten lots of cherries, pears and even deliciously sweet and juicy apricots from this garden, but to me, this failing peach tree meant our climate was not good for this fruit.
I was therefore surprised to discover two years ago that a gardener was growing several varieties of peaches in the area.
I thought early August was a good time to visit and see the peaches on the trees. Even if most of them were not ripe yet, I was not disappointed. Here is a tour of Claude’s garden and the twelve varieties he currently grows, which he showed me during the hour we spent together on 8 August 2018.
Claude had mixed feelings about the first tree he showed me. It looked great from a distance, thanks to how he formed it through pruning, but getting closer unveiled another reality.
Claude was much happier with the second tree he showed me, of a cultivar due to ripen during the second half of August. There were hardly any insects on it compared to the first one.
His peach trees are of different types of varieties: modern, heritage and local. Grosse Mignonne belongs to the heritage category. “This variety is a peach from Montreuil”. Montreuil was a place on the Eastern outskirts of Paris where peaches were grown in walled gardens from the seventeenth century; Grosse Mignonne was one of their most popular varieties5.
This is another old variety, “created by Mr. Gaillard around 1900”.
Lafon de Leucamp
The three trees above were purchased in nurseries. The fourth tree Claude showed me was grown from a stone he planted, which he said was coming from Lafon, a place near a village called Leucamp. He then named it “Lafon de Leucamp” (literally Lafon of Leucamp).
Two draft trees
Claude has experimented a lot since he started to grow peaches in 1971, fourty-seven years ago. Not only has he tried different varieties, over fifty so far, he has also experimented with different tree shapes and sizes.
The two draft trees below, of modern cultivars, were planted in 2017. They should reach 1.50 meter in height and produce from seven to ten kilos of fruit each when adult.
They are easier to take care of, something Claude takes more into account now he is getting older.
Two other flat peach cultivars
We didn’t talk a lot about the first of the two trees below. Claude just gave me the name of the cultivar and mentioned that he would probably remove it at some point.
The dwarf tree below is of a recently created flat peach variety. “We will see what happens with this one”.
The following peaches are smaller for several reasons: the variety, and the exceptionally hot and dry weather conditions that prevented them from growing as normal. Claude said that his trees hadn’t grown since June.
This was the 12th and last variety currently growing in Claude’s garden, which counted up to fifteen. He started with two in 1971.
Claude also grows other fruit in his garden. He constantly tries new varieties, as well as new arboricultural techniques. He shares his great theoretical and practical knowledge of arboriculture on a regular basis with local amateur gardeners. He is a reference for us all here.
He told me that people he meets in warmer regions of the country such as the Ardèche don’t believe him when he says he grows peaches in Aurillac. Well, here is evidence that he successfully does.
When asked whether Aurillac is a good place to grow peaches, Claude replies that there is only one major issue here, late frost which can occur when the trees blossom in April or even May. He estimates that it significantly reduces fruit production once every six years.
Apart from this particular issue linked to Aurillac’s altitude, he says that in his experience peach trees are quite cold resistant, and that the wide temperature ranges we have here even make the fruit tastier and the varieties hardier. If I understand his view and correctly report it, it is because trees produce more phenols9 and phytoalexins10 in response to temperature variations.
I am certainly going to investigate this question of phenols and phytoalexins further, which he says he has been researching for many years. I intend to discuss with him and read research articles about the relationship of plants with their environment11. As for experimentation, Aurillac and the mountains around are a good place to study the effect of temperature ranges on fruit trees I think.
Coming back to Claude’s advice to amateur gardeners, according to him those who have a light soil in their garden, in which peach trees thrive, should plant a pêche de vigne for the best chances of success. There are many varieties of pêche de vigne, not limited to the blood peach often cited in the UK12. Pêche de vigne indicates more a type of variety than a specific one13. They are relatively small peaches of hardy varieties, many of them late, with various skin colours and white, yellow or red flesh14.
There is also the option of the local ones. Stones can be given by a fellow gardener or even found on a local market. I bought wild white flesh peaches with a yellow skin on Aurillac’s market early August which were slightly bitter, as many wild peaches, but very tasty. I kept two stones which I may plant someday.
After all, Claude provides sensible advice to the amateur gardener, which is valid for other fruit such as apples and pears: go for hardy varieties. It’s like dealing with chilly mornings in Aurillac: to enjoy a breath of fresh air, wear a jumper.
- https://www.shanghaiyoungbakers.com/a-memorable-stay-at-aurillac-with-future-syb-teachers-part-1 (accessed 31 August 2018).
- Aurillac https://books.google.fr/books?id=q-TJgOxVmpUC&pg=PA94&lpg=PA94&dq=aurillac+coldest+city&source=bl&ots=gTHsv43pDR&sig=vorsTT6VhkWiiFOT2mRx-lgozKg&hl=en&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwjp-tf0jezcAhUGRBoKHeG_BJUQ6AEwDnoECAUQAQ#v=onepage&q=aurillac%20coldest%20city&f=false (accessed 31 August 2018).
- http://www.meteofrance.com/climat/france (in French, accessed 31 August 2018)
- https://www.lamontagne.fr/aurillac/environnement/cantal/2018/02/20/qualite-de-l-air-le-cantal-reste-preserve_12746414.html (in French, accessed 31 August 2018).
- https://www.francetoday.com/travel/paris/the_fruits_of_paris_the_preservation_and_rebirth_of_montreuil_s_peach_orchards/ (accessed 31 August 2018).
- https://www.lamontagne.fr/clermont-ferrand/meteo/allier/2018/08/02/l-auvergne-et-le-limousin-sous-un-soleil-de-plomb_12941257.html (in French, accessed 31 August 2018).
- https://www.rhs.org.uk/advice/profile?PID=232 (accessed 31 August 2018).
- https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:France_départementale.svg (accessed 31 August 2018).
- https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Phenols (accessed 31 August 2018)
- https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Phytoalexin (accessed 31 August 2018)
- I might start with this article from the Journal of Experimental Botany published in 2012 and called ‘The interaction of plant biotic and abiotic stresses: from genes to the field’. https://academic.oup.com/jxb/article/63/10/3523/545726 (accessed 31 August 2018).
- https://www.gardenbanter.co.uk/edible-gardening/194028-purple-peaches-peche-de-vigne.html (accessed 31 August 2018).
- http://www.fruitiers-rares.info/articles69a74/article72-Prunus-persica-French-names.html (accessed 31 August 2018)
- http://www.cochetfrederic.com/pechers-de-vigne-et-sanguines.html (in French, accessed 31 August 2018)
Great to hear of success in finding the best varieties and growing techniques to push the limits of peach cultivation. I grew up right on the northern edge of the “peach zone” in the northeastern US. Three separate factors limited them there: extreme winter low temperatures that sometimes damaged dormant flower buds, late frosts in spring that damaged opening flowers, and limited heat-hours during the growing season. Together, those factors meant that even the best-adapted varieties ripened a good crop only about every other year – but they were supremely delicious when we got them!
Thank you Craig for sharing your experience. Claude said that his peach trees successfully went through -24°C (it must have been in January 1985, when the lowest temperature in Aurillac was recorded). He didn’t mention dormant flower buds. As for heat-hours, Aurillac is quite a sunny place, which helps.