A Gardening Journal

The Best Season Ever: Purple-leaved Peach

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My tree is still young, but in a couple of years its low canopy will broaden into an irregular mound of gracefully drooping foliage. When low sun passes through the leaves, they show hints of green and orange. The flowers of 'Bonfire' are strong pink, but after that early Spring show, the tree is just as comfortable amid the hot colors of any red garden.

 

The foliage appears more purely burgundy when the light only reflects off the foliage instead of passing through it. Then, partnership is easy with plants that are unashamedly pink in high Summer—as are these perennial hibiscuses back-right, and the bush clover across the entire bottom two thirds of the shot. Could 'Bonfire' be part of a pink garden such that transmitted light was minimized? Site the peach at the west edge of the plantings, so you could experience transmitted light only early in the morning, when low sun is coming from the east.

 

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There are other purple-leaved shoots just beneath the canopy of 'Bonfire' growth. They are distinctly different in habit: looser, much more upright, and with smaller leaves.

 

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Their young stems are an appealing red, too.

 

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These are shoots from the rootstock. As is typical for fruit trees, 'Bonfire' is propagated by grafting. One popular rootstock is 'Royal Red Leaf', which is what was used here. Peach trees usually have green leaves, not purple, so with a purple-leaved rootstock it's immediately clear when there are rootstock sprouts that need to be pruned away. With 'Bonfire', however, you need to identity these shoots by their point of origin and their looser habit.

 

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The longer leaves, denser growth, and overall dwarfness of 'Bonfire' make it a much more practical as well as pleasing ornamental than 'Royal Red Leaf'.

 

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There's no such thing as a low-maintenance peach. The goal is to meet the tree's needs for preventive care in ways that are safe but also the least onerous. Happily, 'Bonfire' is not grown for its fruit, so you are spared much of the work needed for fruiting forms to produce an edible crop. Here's how to grow this unique tree:

 

Latin Name

Prunus persica 'Bonfire'

Common Name

Purple-leaved dwarf peach

Family

Rosaceae, the Rose family.

What kind of plant is it?

Hardy deciduous tree.

Hardiness

Zones 5 - 8.

Habit

Upright, with a short trunk branching into a rounded crown. As wide or wider than tall.

Rate of Growth

Medium.

Size in ten years

Five feet tall and wide.

Texture

Dense and lively: Thanks to the orderly downward dangle of the shiny, narrow, and comparatively large leaves, the tip of each stem creates a fluffy pom-pom vibe.

Grown for

its distinction as the only purple-foliaged hardy shrub or tree with large lance-shaped leaves that hold their color all season long: Yes, there are tropicals, tender-in-New England subtropicals, and annuals with foliage that is both dark and large, such as elephant ear, coleus, canna, phormium, and banana. And plenty of hardy perennials, shrubs, and trees whose purple foliage is as dark but smaller, such as clematis, smoke bush, beech, Japanese maple, and ninebark. But of any hardy woody, the leaves of 'Bonfire' are the largest that maintain their color Spring to Fall.

 

its compactness: Many perennials, ornamental grasses, shrubs and, even, annuals grow taller and wider than the "five by five" that typifies a mature 'Bonfire'. So this tree functions like a shrub.

 

its profuse flowers, which are deep pink veined in red.

Flowering season

Early Spring, as new foliage emerges. April here in New England.

Color combos

The tree's flowers are dark pink; its foliage is a strikingly dark burgundy: All in all then, the visuals are dark. Whether nearby or at a distance, companions that are lighter will provide maximum contrast. The burgundy foliage goes with everything. If you don't mind possible clashes of the early-Spring pink flowers with neighboring plants that are celebrating yellow or red or orange, 'Bonfire' is just as pleasing in a context that welcomes fire-engine red  from May on, as it would be in one that eschews it in favor of pink and pastels.

Plant partners

Because 'Bonfire' is most prudently grown in a fastidious and isolated setting (see "Where to use it," below), this is the rare garden plant for which right-at-hand, twig-to-twig partners aren't advisable. Instead, provide a sympathetic context that is larger scale. The advantage of growing 'Bonfire' in a container is that it elevates an otherwise short and broad tree above its surroundings. Then, partner plantings could approach more closely than would be practical if you needed to access the tree regularly (which you will; see "Downsides," below) at ground level.

 

The foliage maintains its depth of color through the season, so companions that provide the light contrast should do the same. No hardy plant will succeed at that task by flowers alone, so look for options among plants with bright foliage. I have a pair of huge variegated aralias. No matter that they are in my red garden: The peach's flowers are fleeting and, apart from flowering quince, say, or some tulips, what red garden is even thinking about color in April? Or I could keep the tree in the pink garden late Fall through early Spring, moving it to the front of the aralias, at the very center of the red garden, for late Spring to early Fall.

 

Backing the tree (as always with 'Bonfire', at a respectful distance) with a bank of variegated five-leaf aralia (Eletherococcus sieboldianus 'Variega-tus') would be another triumph, especially because the foliage of Eleu-therococcus has such a contrasting texture, too. By the same token, I could back the tree with my tub of brilliantly-variegated arundo, which is resident in the garden just in Spring through early Fall, but its corn-stalk leaves just repeat those of 'Bonfire'.

 

A different tactic entirely would be to surround the containered tree with a contrasting ring. Perhaps a medium-height variegated ornamental grass? The white-striped foliage and pink seedheads of Chasmanthium latifolium 'River Mist' would seem a possibility, but, at least in my experience, the foliage is tattered by the time the seedheads are at their prime. If the containered 'Bonfire' is a focal spot, so is everything right around it. Well, what about 'Silvery Sunproof' liriope? It maintains excitement the whole season.

 

Or go for contrast in foliage shape and texture, with pink flowers as a bonus. A ring of Hydrangea arborescens 'Invincibelle Spirit' would be a welcome contrast in leaf shape and color even before the striking large mopheads of tiny pink flowers appear.

 

If you can provide the necessary room, the following would be a coup de théâtreGrow 'Bonfire' in as large and high a pot as you can muster (and afford), surrounded by four or five plants of 'Gibralter' bush clover. The feathery arches of light blue-green foliage that Lespedeza thunbergii produces each Spring would be a billowing contrast to the lush but heavy growth of 'Bonfire'. And then, August into September, the lespedeza will pour forth thousands of tiny pink flowers. Cut down the lespedeza in late Fall, to make way for the mesh-and-mulch ring (see the second "How to handle it" box, below). You'll remove the ring in plenty of time in Spring, because the peach flowers long before the lespedeza resprouts. True, a quintet of 'Gibralter' could flounce out to a mound fifteen feet across by September. But what a centerpiece the dark and (thanks to the large container) high-enough canopy of 'Bonfire' foliage would be.  

Where to use it in your garden

As is typical for peaches, 'Bonfire' could be attacked by any number of pests and diseases. (See "Downsides," below.) The tree is easiest to maintain in the best health when grown as a soloist in the garden: A specimen that is, set apart literally. This isolation calls attention to the tree. Site so the effect is one of intentional highlighting, not inadvertent exposure: in its own small bed at the center of a small garden, say, or at the crossing of two pathways. Because the tree is dwarf, reasonably hardy, and appreciates heat and excellent drainage, too, consider growing year-round in a large container. This provides additional height, which might enable the tree to receive even fuller sun, while also enhancing the tree's focal wattage and increasing easy passage around the tree, as well as direct access to it for maintenance. If the containered tree can be set on paving, all the better: Then, it's more likely to be entirely separated from contact with native soil, let alone the roots and shade of nearby plants, as well as their possible pests and diseases. See the second "How to handle it" box, below, for recommendations on long-term growth in a container.

Culture

Full sun and almost any reasonably moisture-retentive and nutrient-rich soil that ensures good drainage. As a rule, peach trees are intolerant of poor drainage. Soil that is only slightly acid helps overall vigor and boosts disease resistance. A pH of about 6.5 is reported as being ideal.

How to handle it

Plant in Spring or Fall, ensuring enough water for establishment. Keep the soil beneath the tree mulched and free of detritus that may drop from the tree.

 

Little formative or maintenance pruning is needed; whenever convenient, remove any suckers that might arise from the rootstock. Water regularly, but never so often or so much that drainage is slowed or impaired.

 

If your soil is too acid, raise the pH to near the ideal of 6.5 by applying lime. Peaches also thrive in alkaline soil, so gardeners west of the Mississippi, where alkaline soils are often the norm, usually do not need to acidify soil for their 'Bonfire'. Instead, they may want to acidify the soil enough to lower its pH below 7.0 Contact your local office of the USDA Cooperative Extension Service for guidance on how best to change the soil pH where you garden. Also, follow their local guidance on preventive treatments; see "Downsides," below.

How to handle it: Another option—or two!

The comparatively small size of 'Bonfire' can synergize with its reasonably hardiness and likely need for regular preventive maintenance to suggest that growing permanently in a container would be practical as well as pleasing. Not least, then it can be isolated from surrounding plants, either in-ground or in containers, so that any necessary spraying is more easily restricted to just the peach. In a container, it's all the more convenient to keep the surface of the ground beneath the tree (that of the container itself, as well as of the immediate surroundings) free of fallen fruit, twigs, or leaves, any of which might otherwise increase the opportunity for disease. Plus, when you're using lime to raise the pH of just a container's worth of too-acid soil, it's quicker and easier to monitor and maintain the just-slightly-acid soil that peaches prefer.

 

Don't use the same type of potting soil that you'd provide for annuals; they prefer a fluffy medium that isn't substantial enough over the longer term. Instead, source organically-produced soil recommended for growing vegetables in raised beds, which will be amended with additives such as compost and sand.

 

A mature 'Bonfire' can be five feet tall and wide and, so, any pot large enough for such full-size growth will be both large and heavy. I'll probably keep my tree in a heavy black plastic nursery pot, eventually one that's fifteen or even twenty-five gallons. With such a container, there's no challenge when overwintering in place. 'Bonfire' is hardy in-ground to Zone 5, which means that in a container it is not likely to be hardy colder than Zone 6b without protection. (In Zone 7 and warmer, the tree should be fully hardy when growing in a container, even without Winter protection.) "Protection" means shelter of the container and its root-mass, not the trunk and branches of the tree.

 

One option in Zones 6 and 5 is to move the containered tree into shelter after the mild freezes of Fall have enabled it to enter dormancy. Any cool and unheated greenhouse, sunporch, or garage would be fine. Fruit trees usually require a certain amount of below-freezing weather, so it is not appropriate to shelter 'Bonfire' in the same space that you would frost-tender tropicals, or in a sunroom that is, even barely, warm enough to sit in during the Winter. Beginning in January, check once or twice a month to see whether watering is needed; if the weather remains cold and cloudy, the tree may be fine on its own for many weeks. 

 

Fruit trees in general are quick to respond to warming temperatures and lengthening days, so such a sheltered tree may emerge from dormancy well before the weather outside is frost-free. Be prepared, then, to enjoy the flowering and new foliage while the tree is still indoors. (Because 'Bonfire' isn't grown for fruit, there's no need to worry that the tree's flowers are accessible to insect pollinators.) Return to a full-sun position outside only after frost danger has passed.

 

Moving such a comparatively large plant into shelter and back into the garden is always somewhat of a project. It might be easier to provide some Winter shelter while leaving the tree in place outside. One option is to erect a ring of rigid wire-mesh fence that is eighteen inches wider, all around, than the pot that 'Bonfire' is growing in. Choose mesh that is six inches or a foot higher than the top of the 'Bonfire' pot. (Snow fence is another option.) Fill the donut of space between pot and mesh with mulch or raked leaves, mounding up over the top of the pot, too. This layer of loose organic material doesn't insulate the pot, per se: Over time, the soil in the container will be almost as cold that the surrounding air temperature. But the layer will slow down the frequency of freezing and thawing that might otherwise occur almost daily when nights are freezing but the days sunny. This more closely mimics the temperature cycle roots of hardy plants experience when they are growing below-ground. There, soil freezes only gradually as Winter descends, and thaws just as slowly as it lifts. The ring of leaves or mulch also effectively shields the root mass from wind chill.

 

Remove the mesh and the mulch or leaves in early Spring, after it's clear that the tree's flower buds and new leaves are swelling but before the floral show has actually begun. A containered tree in bloom is an elegant creature; one whose container is still encased in mesh and mulch will look bizarrely bottom-heavy. Because the above-ground portion of the tree has been fully exposed all Winter, there's no danger of premature emergence of new growth that could, otherwise, be caused by sheltering the entire plant, not just its root-mass. When such a "meshed and mulched" tree wakes up, you can rely on its timing.

 

It's difficult to say that sheltering in place via the mesh-and-mulch tactic is any less of a project than moving a mature dwarf tree into shelter in the Fall and then back out into the garden the next Spring. Sheltering in place does have the advantage that the tree won't break into flower or leaf while still under shelter, where its visual presence is likely to be irrelevant. There is always joy in seeing trees emerge from dormancy each Spring, and sheltering 'Bonfire' in place ensures that the tree's luxurious display of flowers enjoys the prominence provided by its permanent location. 

Quirks and special cases

'Bonfire' develops small but subtly intriguing fruit that is surfaced in chestnut-brown fuzz. Because fruit forms from flowers that developed on wood that matured the prior season, the fruit becomes hidden under the foliage of the current season's growth. I eagerly sliced one open, hoping for flesh that is at least as dark as the fuzz, and maybe even the foliage. Would 'Bonfire' be the blood orange of peaches? Alas, the flesh is mostly white. It's inedible when raw, too, but is reported to make a good pie. Plus, it turns red when cooked: Then, 'Bonfire' is the blood orange of peaches. 

Downsides

Peaches are infamous for their succeptibility to a number of insect, animal, bacterial, and fungal pests. Check with your local office of the USDA Cooperative Extension Service to see what intensity of care is advisable if attempting to grow peaches where you garden.

 

Here are the steps I'm taking in hopes of maintaining a thriving 'Bonfire' in southern New England without also needing to own a hazmat suit:

 

     1. In early June, I'll spread a thick layer of wood ashes around the base of the trunk to deter attacks of the peach tree borer moth, whose tunneling larvae can girdle the tree. If you don't burn enough firewood, sprinkle mothballs heavily around the base of the trunk instead. Cover them with a layer of sand to keep them in place and to slow down their vaporization. 

 

     2. I'll paint the trunk (festively, I hope) with white latex paint diluted 1:1 with water; this also deters borers.

 

     3. I'll spray preventively with "Regalia," an extract of giant knotweed, which is approved for organic use and helps boost the tree's natural defenses against many of the bacterial ailments that can slay peach trees.

 

My 'Bonfire' peach is still new to my gardens—in its first few months of residence, in fact—so I don't have direct experience with the effectiveness of these measures. I'll report in as their power becomes evident.

Variants

There are innumerable cultivars of peaches grown for their edible fruit. I'm hard put to think of any cultivar other than 'Bonfire' that is grown exclusively as an ornamental. (Yes, 'Bonfire' fruit can be made into pies, but you'd never grow 'Bonfire' because it develops small fruit that is inedible unless cooked.)

Availability

On-line.

Propagation

By grafting. My 'Bonfire' is grafted on 'Royal Red Leaf', whose foliage is also excitingly dark, but whose growth is not nearly as compact.  

Native habitat

Prunus persica is native to China and not, as its name "persica" would suggest, to Persia, now known as Iran. Peaches are grown and bred worldwide.

 
 
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