The nectarine (Prunus persica var. nucipersica) is a small deciduous tree, or mutant branch originating from a peach tree (Prunus persica). The peach is native to China and the nectarine arose from peach trees and then selected by man. Peach and nectarine trees were brought to and spread across Europe before coming to North America.
The peach is a member of the rose family, Rosaceae, and has a scientific name of Prunus persica. The nectarine, a peach mutation, is regarded as a naturally occurring variety of peach and provided the name Prunus persica var. nucipersica.
Nectarines, in essence, are peaches that lack the fuzzy skin. These smooth fruits first arose on naturally mutated branches on peach trees, which are native to China. The peach has been cultivated for thousands of years in China, since 2000 B.C., where they are a symbol of long life.
Contrary to common myth, the nectarine is not the result of hybridizing a peach with a plum. Although there is no specific literature or imagery specifically of the nectarine, an educated hypothesis is that the mutant fuzzless peach did occur in peach orchards. Whether these nectarines were celebrated or destroyed is unknown; as they are edible peaches, it seems unlikely the fruits would not have been appreciated regardless of when or where they appeared on peach trees.
Peaches in Asia Minor and Classical Europe
The history of the nectarine is closely intertwined with that of the peach. Any peach tree can form the mutation that causes some of its fruits to form without the characteristic felt-like skin. Fuzzless peaches, nectarines, randomly occurred in orchards wherever peach tree grew.
By 300 B.C., Pliny wrote of the presence of peach trees in Greece, and in Persia the peach was sent as seeds and grown into trees by 1 B.C. Also, in drawings in the Mt. Vesuvius-destroyed city of Herculaneum in Italy, images of the peach existed in 79 A.D.
Nectarines in Europe
The Spanish brought peach trees to Mexico in the 15th century. Italian paintings in the 16th century also depicted and reinforced the peach's popularity in Europe.
By 1630, nectarines were being grown in England. In fact, six different varieties were recorded. This provides evidence that the fuzzless peach had been selected by horticulturists, not only for the fuzzless fruits, but for other characteristics as well, such as tree vigor, fruit color or flavor.
Nectarines in the United States
By 1720, nectarines were mentioned in literature or correspondence to be growing in the peach orchards in Virginia. A.J. Downing noted that in the mid 1850s there were 19 different "races" or varieties of nectarines extant. They were being grown in California well before 1900.