What is the history of the nectarine?

The history of the nectarine runs parallel to that of the peach which appears to have originated in China. "The established history of the nectarine goes back 2,000 years and then merges into that of the peach," says U.P. Hedrick in The Peaches of New York, published in 1917. Despite the fact that DeCandolle 'sought in vain for a proof that the nectarine existed in Italy in the time of ancient Rome,' we are convinced that Pliny's 'duracinus' is the nectarine. Matthiolus in 1554 discusses Pliny's statements concerning the kinds of peaches at length and concludes that the author's 'duracinus' is the peach. Dalechamp, in 1587 and J. Bauhin in 1650, both describe nectarines, after which botanists and pomologists invariably include this fruit. In the 16th and 17th centuries the nectarine was called 'nucipersica' because it resembled in smoothness and color of the outer skin as well as in size and shape, the walnut. 'Nectarine', the meaning of the word obvious, appears first to have been used for this fruit, in the English language at least, by Parkinson in 1629 who describes six varieties and gives us the information 'they have been with us not many years." Gerarde, the great English herbalist, 1597, does not mention them. We find the nectarine first mentioned in America in 1722 by Robert Beverly in his History of Virginia.

Richard Parkinson, referred to above, in his Paradisus Terrestris (Earthly Paradise), 1629, says: "I presume that the name Nucipersica doth most rightly belong unto the kinde of peach, which we call nectorins, and althought they have beene with us not many yeares, yet have they beene knowne both in Italy to Matthiolus, and others before him, who it seemeth knew no other than the yellow nectorin, as Dalechampius also: But we at this day doe know five severall sorts of nectorins, as they shall be presently set downe." He then describes the tree and lists "the Muske nectorin, the Romane red, the yellow nectorin, the greene nectorin and the white necxtorin," describing each.

In the 19th century there was a proposal to separate the peach and nectarine into two species but this was given up in the face of overwhelming evidence that the nectarine is a form of peach, even though a very distinctive one.

Assuming that the peach and nectarine history run parallel, the nectarine reached Persia from China, then was carried to Greece and Rome and spread into the temperate parts of Europe. The Spaniards are believed to have brought peach seeds and trees for planting to America on the second, third or both voyages of Columbus. By 1571 three types of peach were growing in Mexico.

"The nectarine was apparently one of the later fruit introductions in California, all of the varieties having been shipped from eastern nurseries into the state during the period of the gold rush," says Professor Claron Hesse of University of California. "Nectarines had been introduced to the eastern states form England where there was considerable professional and amateur interest in the production of exotic fruits in the early 1800's. The first edition of Wickson's 'California Fruits' lists 11 varieties, all but two of which were of English origin. The two exceptions were Violette Native from France and the Boston, which originated near Boston, Mass.

Early California nectarines were the green-skinned, white-fleshed, small but good tasting John Rivers, Gower and Quetta. The patter was changed in 1942 when Fred W. Anderson of Le Grand, Calif., plant breeder and fruit grower, introduced the Le Grand. Later he bred and developed Late Le Grand, Sun Grand, Early Sun Grand, Red Grand, Star Grand, September Grand and other crosses.

Plant breeders have spent a great deal of time and effort achieving the modern nectarines. Their size has been increased, skin color deepened and changed from a faint blush on a greenish background to the gold and crimson colors now familiar on produce racks. Many varieties are freestones. Now about 60 varieties of nectarines are being produced in California, although ten account for almost all grown commercially.

Excerpted from Seelig, R.A. 1971May. Fruit & Vegetable Facts & Pointers: Nectarines. United Fresh Fruit & Vegetable Association, 777 14th Street, NW, Washington, DC

Updated: Wednesday, May 23, 2012.