Peaches and nectarines are popular stone fruits that both mature in mid to late summer. There is actually only one major difference that separates these two types of fruit, and it is notable to even the casual observer. A peach has fuzzy skin, while a nectarine does not. As a general rule, the fruits also have slightly different tastes and textures, but this is due more to breeder selection than to nature. They both have the same heady scent and rich flavor, and they can be used interchangeably in a wide assortment of foods.
Peaches have been grown in Asia for centuries, and they proved to be a popular export once they were introduced to the West. Nectarines were also grown in Asia, and early botanists noticed that nectarines sometimes appeared on a peach tree, or vice versa. Once genetics became more fully understood, scientists realized that the different between a peach and a nectarine was actually extremely small.
The difference comes down to one recessive gene, which determines whether or not the resulting fruit will be fuzzy. If both parent trees pass on a copy of this gene to a seedling, the result will be a nectarine. Otherwise, peaches and nectarines are genetically identical, as anyone who has noticed the resemblance between the two fruits probably realizes. Since many modern fruit trees are produced by cloning, this gene is not as large of an issue as it once was.
Both fruits range in color from a creamy yellow to a rich orange with a red blush. They may be almost white to orange and tend to be sweet, juicy, and very flavorful. When blind tasted side by side, a peach and a nectarine may actually taste identical, as long as they are peeled so that taste subjects cannot use the skin as a reference.
Nectarines tend to be bred to be somewhat smaller than peaches, and they may have a firmer texture and a sweeter flavor. Both fruit appear in freestone and clingstone varieties. A freestone fruit has a pit that will readily fall out when the fruit is cut in half, while the pit of a clingstone fruit is difficult to dislodge. Freestone fruits are great for salads and other dishes in which the shape of the fruit is important, while clingstone fruit can be used to make pies and preserves, since it doesn't matter if the fruit is mangled to get the pit out.