Biting into the soft flesh of a nectarine (Prunus persica) is one of the highlights of summer for many. These luscious fruits are essentially a fuzz-less form of peaches and can be grown in U.S. Department of Agriculture plant hardiness zones 6 through 8. Grow nectarines at home as a healthy and educational activity to share with your kids, but make sure you understand the differences between the types of nectarines that are offered in local nurseries.
Just like peaches, nectarines can have either white or yellow flesh. White nectarines are sweet and sugary compared to the yellow-flesh varieties. The fruit of yellow flesh nectarines is more acidic with a characteristic tart flavor. "Arctic Glo," "Arctic Blaze" and other varieties that incorporate the word "arctic" are some of the most common white nectarines. "Flavortop" and "Fantasia" are two common yellow-flesh varieties for backyard orchards. "Honeykist" is a "sub-acid" type that combines yellow nectarine flavor with white nectarine sugar content.
Freestone Versus Clingstone
The fruit of freestone nectarines breaks cleanly from the pit when it is cut open. The flesh of clingstone types sticks to the pit with stringy fibers that can also get stuck in your teeth. The purpose of the two types has to do with how the fruit is to be used -- freestone is preferred for fresh eating, while clingstone nectarines are intended for making juice, pies and preserves. "Cavalier" and "Double Delight" are two examples of freestone varieties. "Flamekist" is a common clingstone nectarine and "Juneglo" is an example of an intermediate, or semi-freestone, variety.
Nectarines are available for cold climates, warm climates, deserts and coastal areas. However, the single most important factor in choosing a suitable nectarine is to know how many winter chill hours are typical for your region. In areas with mild winters, such as Southern and Coastal California, Florida, the Gulf Coast and the rest of Deep South, only low-chill nectarines will reliably produce fruit. This means varieties that need less than 500 hours of winter chill, such as "Arctic Star," "Goldmine" and "Jolly Red Giant." Ultra-low chill varieties have been bred for desert climates, such as "Desert Delight," which needs less than 200 hours of winter chill each year.
Season of Ripening
It is possible to choose nectarines that ripen anywhere from May to September. In general, white nectarines tend to ripen later than yellow types, and freestone fruit ripens later than clingstone. Low-chill varieties are always the earliest to ripen because they break dormancy in late winter -- not a good thing in northern climates, however. If you have space, you may consider several trees to extend the season as long as possible, or you can take advantage of multi-graft nectarine trees that incorporate three or four types on one trunk for maximum variety.