For many across the Midwest, we are taught to be familiar with cultivated plants like sorghum, wheat, corn, and soybeans. Anything else is typically regarded as a “weed” and sprayed to make room for more grazing/field space. If you end up wandering by some fields along water or in pastures with thick brambles during the end of summer, you may notice little orange and red cherry sized fruit hanging from a short tree. These trees are often referred to as wild plums.
How I became interested in learning about these wild plums is an interesting story. It all started went I was hanging out with some friends from high school. While chatting with them, I recall one of my friends mentioning how his grandfather would go forage around one of our local lakes in search for sand plums.
He later went on to describe the characteristics of the plant, how his grandfather used the plant, and why many chose said location rather than roadsides when foraging for wild plums. I personally felt very intrigued with the idea that there was a free resource just sitting there for the taking. It also appealed to me that these plants were native and had a strong historical and cultural background.
For me, once there is a little bit of a story wrapped around a plant or animal to a given region, culture, or historical context, I am strongly drawn to the plant and obsess about learning more about said plant. In my studies of the plant and its uses, I was amazed at what I had learned by doing a few google searches and seeing what I could see.
From there I went on to pick a few pounds worth of the plums and tried to process it on my own, but failing due to a few rookie mistakes. Beyond that, I was grateful to be able to connect with the plant and learn what it had to say. I also enjoy the adventure of going out and searching for plants to look for their gifts and finding out what other mystery may lie near them in the wild.
I want to share with you the cool things I learned about these plants while foraging for them out in the field. These plants grow native across North America, so it has potential to be part of a food forest or edible landscape if you wanted to. I hope to help you be able to differentiate between the different species, give some historical/cultural context, highlight advantages to growing these plants in your own garden/food forest, describe my experience tasting the fruit of the plants, and describe how people have used these plants for hundreds if not thousands of years.
1.Types of Plum
There are a few types of wild plums around where I live. One is the American plum (Prunus americana) and the other is the Sand plum (Prunus angustifolia). The two are very similar in appearance, with really only slight difference in the color of the fruit they produce. Each species goes by different common names, so understand that before doing some research on your own.
In my state, both of these species are native, though they both are distributed differently across the state. The American plum is typically found in the Eastern portion of my state where there is generally more rainfall and can be found in the central Midwest to Eastern regions of the United States. The trees can get up to 12 ft. tall, though depending on soil quality can be stunted in terms of growth. Despite this, the American plums are known to create thickets up to 35 feet wide. Typically you can find these trees along edges of various habitats as it seems to be a good understory tree. It also seems to do wall in full sun pastures. American plums produce a variation of colors of fruit ranging from yellow to red and even what I consider a grape color.
The Sand plum is more common in the Western portion of my state where it is more dry and sandy. You typically can find this tree in South-Eastern regions of the United States and into parts of the Midwest. These trees are noted to range 2-25 ft. high depending on the soil quality. This plant will also form a thicket and kind of bunch together with other plants. Typically you can find these on more sandy prairies or places with pretty dry soil. Sand plums produce fruit that are bright red when ripe.
Both of these trees can produce thorns, so keep that in mind if you are out foraging for them or are looking to plant them somewhere on your property. People have cultivated some that have been bred to lose some of these negative traits and improve fruit size/sweetness, but just something to consider.
2. Cultural Context
Since both of these species are native to the United States they have a deep connection with various tribes. The name Chickasaw plum is a common name given to the sand plum; this is due to the cultivation of the plant by Native Americans prior to the arrival of Europeans.
The story is similar for the American plum, but the tribes who used it differ as they were grown in different regions. Many tribes used this species for both food from the plums it produced, the branches for ceremonies, and the roots for dye.
In regards to European uses, often you hear stories of people eating these plums during times of struggle such as during the dust bowl in the Midwest or during the great depression. Many Americans can recall their mothers or grandmothers making wild plum jelly and other comfort foods with these plums.
From my experience of foraging and tasting fruit from both of the species discussed in this blog, I have learned that it is important to shake trees so that the ripe fruit can fall. If you try and guess which fruit is ready based on color, you may end up taking a bite and getting a tart taste rather than sweetness.
Naturally, both of these fruit will be slightly tart, but when picked correctly you will get more of a sweet taste than a sour taste. You will have to sacrifice and taste a few that aren’t ready to be picked, but you can always let unripe fruit ripen over time after being picked, so don’t feel like you ruined your harvest if you picked a little too early.
4. Advantages to Growing Them
I will always encourage people to grow native plants when and if possible almost for any occasion. These plants have so many different ecological roles that it is crazy. Many of these benefits are seen at a more large scale, though I am certain that there are some benefits for those who want to grow a single tree next to their house.
The main advantage of planting these species is that they are a perennial food supply that has relatively no pests, lives for decades, and is very drought tolerant. Many people speak highly of the jams, jellies, and pies made from these fruit, though I encourage you to try it out before planting it unless, you just want to roll the dice. If you wish to plant one of the species discussed, do understand that wild varieties may not have ideal sized fruit and one tree may have naturally more bitter fruit, while another may be sweeter.
Outside of consumption, these trees can grow in poor soil conditions and prevent erosion with their roots, especially if growing alongside a cliff, stream, or river. This is why you will typically find these trees near areas where erosion is common. It is also why during the dust bowl, sand plums were one of the only things really able to grow despite the adverse conditions.
These plants produce great habitat for birds and other animals if allowed to make brambles/thickets which are ideal housing for things like rabbits, deer, and more. Deer and other mammals will browse on the leaves and shoots of the plant as well as the fruit, though in my observations, they don’t seem to like the fruit as much.
5. How to Use The Trees
As I mentioned briefly earlier, many people eat the fruit raw or make jam/jellies with the fruit. Others have noted that they used the fruit as filling for pies and other treats. Some people even use these plums to produce wine via fermentation.
Beyond the culinary methods of using these trees, many Native tribes used these trees for medicinal properties. The American plum was used for the bark of its roots to cure things from canker sours to diarrhea. The root and bark are known to have high concentrations of a substance called phloretin which is shown to be effective against gram positive and negative bacteria.
These plans are an amazing part of the ecological diversity here in the United States. I can’t believe that I didn’t know the history, taste, or beauty of these trees until this year. Only when I started learning about these trees was I able to start seeing them. These are food sources that were cultivated for hundreds or thousands of years by man and now get cut back and sprayed because a vast majority of don’t know the good that they hold.
I hope you learned something new and that maybe you consider to go out next summer and see if you can find any of these wild fruit to forage for yourself. Maybe you will consider growing some trees around your home or homestead as well!