Mar 5, 2012
Grower finds nectarine growing on peach tree

In the spring of 2010, Kenneth Crews, owner of Crews Family Orchard in Gretna, Va., was thinning peaches when he noticed something strange.

“I sat down on the tailgate of my truck to take a break,” he said. “I just happened to look at the next tree I was going to work on and said, ‘What is that?’ I got to looking, and it was a nectarine on a whole tree full of peaches.”

Crews called Keith Yoder, a research and Extension fruit tree pathologist at Virginia Tech, and told him about the nectarine.

“I call him any time I have a problem,” Crews said. “When I told him the story, he started laughing and asked me what the punch line was. I sent him some photos, and then he wanted to know if I had Super Glued it to the tree.”

Next, Crews called Stark Bro’s Nursery, where he had purchased the tree, and talked to Elmer Kidd, the company’s chief production officer, who also asked to see pictures.

“He told me to watch it, put a bird net around it and take pictures of it while it was growing,” Crews said. “So, that’s what we did.”

Meanwhile, Crews convinced Yoder that the peach tree really was growing a single nectarine. Yoder visited Crews Family Orchard several times to see it and take photographs as it was growing.

Crews decided not to alert the media at the time. He didn’t want to draw attention to the nectarine as it was growing, just in case somebody decided to take it.

According to Kidd, although this sort of incident is rare, it does happen from time to time on a number of different kinds of fruit trees including peaches, pears, apples and cherries.

“A nectarine is really a peach with no fuzz,” he said. “The very first nectarine that I remember in my lifetime was called Fuzzless Berta. That tells me that particular nectarine probably was a sport of some sort from an Elberta peach tree.”

Kidd said the peach and nectarine are closely related. In fact, they are the same species: the peach is Prunus persica and the nectarine is Prunus persica var. nucipersica.

The nectarine is the result of a homozygous recessive allele on one chromosome, Yoder said.

Kidd said, however, that peaches and nectarines have different flavors.

“I believe that nectarines are more tart than peaches,” Kidd said. “They’re better on vanilla ice cream.”

Kidd said most nectarines developed as “sport limbs,” or mutations, on peach trees.

“The most common causes of that phenomenon are overpruning or injury of some sort,” he said. “That can affect the chromosomes in the limb. In fact, a lot of apple varieties have come along as limb sports.”

With limb sports, Kidd said, bud wood is grafted onto rootstock, essentially cloning a series of trees that are genetically identical to the sport or mutation. Some varieties of fruit that have originated as limb sports, he said, include Starking Delicious peach (a sport from July Elberta peach), Jumbo apple (from Spokane Beauty apple) and Grand Gala apple (from Royal Gala apple, which is itself a sport variety).

The other way new varieties come about, of course, is through breeding programs. When breeders plant a large number of seeds from any given cross, there’s the possibility that a finite number of the resulting trees will be nectarines.

“For instance, the Sunglo nectarine is a cross between Hale Haven peach and another variety,” Kidd said. “So, there’s a nectarine that has at least one parent that’s a peach.”

Yoder agreed that Crews’ nectarine was a sport, although he said it probably was a bud sport. In other words, there simply wasn’t enough wood carrying the mutation to use it for grafting.

“The thought was to take the end of the limb past the nectarine and try to graft it,” Crews said. “But it was so short – only about a quarter of an inch past the nectarine – that it wasn’t feasible.”

“To propagate it, I think you would have had to do tissue culture,” Yoder said.

Crews let the fruit ripen and planted the pit to see if it would grow.

“It didn’t do anything,” Crews said. “I thought my ship had come in, but of course I was at the airport.”

Even if it had grown, Yoder said, there’s no guarantee that it would have been the same as the nectarine it came from.

“I think it would have been different genetically from the nectarine,” he said.

In 2011, Crews’ amazing peach tree grew only peaches. He hasn’t given up, though, on seeing if it will grow another nectarine.

“I have that limb marked,” he said. “I want to see if it happens again.”

By Carolee Anita Boyles, FGN Correspondent

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