The recently released Honey May nectarine, a yellow-fleshed subacid variety, ripens in early May. 

The recently released Honey May nectarine, a yellow-fleshed subacid variety, ripens in early May. 

White-fleshed peaches and nectarines have become extremely popular in the Pacific Rim, and have also developed a strong following among U.S. consumers who prefer the highly sweet flavor of fruit with very low acidity. But the newer subacid yellow-fleshed varieties seem to be making an even bigger splash in the domestic market because they offer customers the best of both worlds—they have the yellow fruit color many Americans are accustomed to, but they also have the candy-sweet taste of some of the white-fleshed varieties.

One major problem, though, in the market for subacid yellow-fleshed fruit—especially in the earlier and later parts of the season—is that there haven’t been enough varieties to provide a continuous supply throughout the entire tree-fruit season. But recently, nursery breeders and plant geneticists have released some new varieties that aim to fill in the gaps.

Leith Gardner, manager of Zaiger Genetics in Modesto, California, pointed to Honey May—a low-acid, yellow-fleshed nectarine that was recently released commercially. The variety ripens during the first week of May.

“It’s early, it has a nice size, and it maintains flavor and firmness past maturity on the tree,” Gardner said. “A lot of other subacid varieties don’t have the flavor they once had after they ripen on the tree. But these have a high flavor all the way down to soft ripe.”

Before Honey May was released, most of the earliest-producing subacid varieties didn’t mature until early June, Gardner said. One of the biggest challenges in developing the early varieties is getting them to sugar up so early in the season.

“Some of the early varieties have so little time on the tree in between bloom and harvest time, that they don’t have the ability to build up sugars the way the later varieties do,” Gardner said.

Low sugar and high acidity often turn consumers to traditional yellow-fleshed peaches and nectarines that come early in the season. But what makes Honey May taste so sweet isn’t that it has an extraordinarily high sugar level—it only averages about 10° Brix of sugar. It’s the low acidity, Gardner said.

No acidity

In the past, nursery breeders often aimed to develop subacid varieties with no acidity at all. But the zero-acid varieties have their own unique set of problems.

Dale McHaley, branch manager of Bright Brothers Nursery in Reedley, California, said when he first started, he tried a true subacid, which had zero acid.

“They ate really wonderfully off the tree, but when you put them in cold storage, they didn’t taste the same. Now we’re leaning toward low-acid fruit, which will still produce the high sugars but carry enough acidity that they come out eating normal.”

McHaley said that the Bright Sweet nectarine variety, which comes out in mid-July, and the Candy Princess peach variety, which matures in early July, are his nursery’s most recent releases. The sugar level in each variety averages 17° to 19° Brix, he said.

“If you look at some of the other low-acid varieties like the Kay Sweet, which was the first in our program that had 14° Brix, and compare them to what we have now, it has just been a huge jump,” McHaley said.

Dave Wilson Nursery, also in Reedley, has released a new subacid yellow-fleshed peach of its own, Sweet Dream, which matures in mid-July. Sweet Dream will produce 2,000 boxes per acre during a time of the year when the average yield on most varieties is 1,500 to 2,000 boxes, according to Lee Sadler, assistant manager of sales at Dave Wilson Nursery.

“This is one of the heaviest-producing varieties in the ground at this time of the year. This has also got very good flavor and a nice red blush over a yellow background, which is hard to find in the late season,” Sadler said.

With all the new varieties, it seems that the white-fleshed and subacid yellow-fleshed peaches and nectarines are the fastest-growing segments of the tree-fruit markets, according to Gary Van Sickle, field director of the California Tree Fruit Agreement, based in Reedley. But the biggest challenge the industry faces is that most retailers don’t separate the subacid fruits from the traditional acidic yellow-fleshed peaches and nectarines in the produce aisles of supermarkets.

PLU numbers

“This creates a problem because if a consumer buys a subacid peach and it tastes great and he doesn’t realize it’s a subacid, then when he goes back to the store and buys a regular peach with more acidity, he’s going to be disappointed and think there’s something wrong with the peach,” Van Sickle said.

Industry members hope that the subacid varieties will be assigned their own price lookup (PLU) numbers, so consumers know exactly what they’re buying. In the meantime, though, some retailers are finding ways to differentiate between the two types of yellow-fleshed peaches and nectarines by giving the subacids separate shelf space, and their own private PLU numbers store by store.

Steve Sperry, a produce manager at Haggen grocery store in Barkley, near Bellingham, Washington, said last year was the first year the chain, which has 33 stores, began selling the low-acid varieties. Sperry said he put the subacids in their own separate display area, away from the regular yellow-fleshed fruit.

“We didn’t put them next to the regular peaches because it’s too easy to grab some of everything and get mixed up. So, we put the subacids on one side of the soft fruit display and the regular yellow-fleshed varieties on the opposite side of the display, so that people wouldn’t get confused,” Sperry said.

Sperry said that he charges a small premium for the subacid varieties because they require more handling than regular yellow-fleshed varieties, since they bruise more easily due to their higher sugar content.

“We have to be careful to single-layer them, so they don’t pile up on each other and cause bruising. But the subacid varieties have increased the overall soft fruit category because it gives consumers more of a selection, and it also creates a niche for us in our supermarket that other stores don’t have,” Sperry said. 

Lisa Lieberman is a freelance writer living in Three Rivers, California. She writes about agricultural issues in the central San Joaquin Valley and throughout California.