Aug 10, 2017

Wild Plum (Prunus Americana)

By Lawanda Jungwirth

When the forest is still a dreary brown and gray in April, a graceful spray of white flowers might catch your eye. These are the flowers of the wild plum. Wild plum trees and shrubs can be found in prairies, woodlands, pastures, and hedgerows, and along roadsides and riverbanks. They may be multi-stemmed shrubs or single-trunked trees, reaching 8-25 feet tall at maturity, with a spread of the same distance.       

Pretty white flower clusters appear first, followed by shiny green oval or egg-shaped 2-4 inch long leaves with toothed edges. The flowers have been described as “unpleasantly aromatic” but that’s a matter of opinion. Some people like the fragrance; others do not. Bark is cinnamon brown to grayish-black and smooth in young trees. It becomes scaly in more mature trees. Leaves turn yellow in fall.      

In late August or early September, the plums are ripe for picking. In fact, you might not even notice a plum tree in the woods until late August when your nose catches the smell of the ripening fruit. Be careful when harvesting the fruit as some plum trees have thorns.        

Wild plums are smaller than their domesticated cousins, usually about 1 ½ inches in diameter. When ripe, the fruit may be yellow, pink, red, blue or purple, so color isn’t an indication of ripeness. Squeeze the fruit to see if it is soft and then taste it to determine ripeness. Just as the color varies, so does the taste. Some wild plums never become as sweet as domesticated plums, but others are just as tasty. All are edible. Tart plums make excellent jellies, jams, sauce, or pies while the sweeter ones can be eaten out of hand.        

Just like domesticated plums, there is a stone or pit inside the fruit. There is some controversy as to whether the pits are toxic or not. Some sources claim they contain cyanide, but that the amount of cyanide varies. Here’s the suggested test: Roast the seeds and taste them. If they are not bitter, apparently they are safe to eat. Of course, you’ve already eaten one to determine whether or not it is bitter, so . . . good luck with that. Other sources say the seeds are fine to use to flavor syrups, alcohols and vinegars. Personally, I’d give the seeds a pass.        

If your property needs a shelter belt, wildlife habitat or erosion control, wild plum is a good choice. Turkeys, black bears, foxes and some birds eat the fruits. To plant wild plum, just harvest fruit in fall, remove the pulp from around the seed and plant it immediately. It may take a year or two to germinate. Germination rates are low, so plant several seeds.     

Wild plums sucker freely and may form large shrub colonies up to 100 feet wide and long. If you are looking for a single-trunked tree, cut any suckers off at ground level as soon as you notice them. On the other hand, if you’re looking to grow a wild plum colony, just let them go.       

Unfortunately, wild plums suffer from many of the same pest and disease problems as do domesticated plums. These include tent caterpillars, aphids, scale, borers, leaf spot, branch cankers, black knot, plum curculio and brown rot. None of these are reasons not to grow them though!