National Geographic : 1951 Sep
American Plums-Fruit of the Pioneers NATIVE American plums belong in this story of fruits, not because they are im portant in commerce, but because of the place they filled in the diets of pioneer settlers. From New England to Florida, the early colonists found wild plums. As the wagon trains rolled westward, the settlers discovered them growing in all sections west to the Rockies. Beyond the Rockies, on to the Pa cific, they occurred in scattered locations. No other native tree fruit is so widely dis tributed in this country as the plum. Some form of it is found in every State in the Union. And, while our native plums are not generally of high dessert quality, most of them, as they grow wild, make very good jam, jelly, and plum butter. These offered a wel come and valuable variety to the simple and often monotonous diet of the pioneers. Even today, large quantities of native plums are gathered from the wild. Cultivated va rieties derived from them are among the most dependable fruits for growing in some parts of our country, particularly in the colder sections. The colonists who settled in New England found two principal kinds of plums. The Canadian plum, Prunus nigra, grows through out New England and New York, about all the Great Lakes, over much of Minnesota, and into Canada. The flowers are large for a plum and have a pink tinge, an unusual characteristic since plum flowers are generally pure white or green tinged. The fruit is oval to oblong, a little over an inch long, and varies from crimson to orange-yellow in color. It ripens in late August and September. The Indians gathered and dried these fruits in large quantities. This species is very hardy, and a number of horticultural varieties from it are now widely grown in northern areas. The second plum in New England grew only near the ocean, on sandy soils. This beach plum, P. maritima, is a small bush bearing nearly round fruit about two-thirds of an inch in diameter. It grows in a narrow belt from southern Maine to Virginia and is greatly prized today for jam making. It is most like the European Damson of any native plum and has a special spicy flavor that many people enjoy. The Red, Horse, Hog, or Goose Plum A third great species, P. americana, is well named. It spreads over about half the area of the United States, from New York to Montana and south to Louisiana and Mis sissippi. In most sections it is simply called wild plum, but it is also known as Red plum, Yel low plum, Horse plum, Hog plum, Goose plum, August plum, and, in the far south, Sloe. The fruit ripens mainly in July in the south, and in September in the north. While the plums vary somewhat in different areas, they are generally nearly round, reddish orange to red, and one inch or less in diameter. This plum has contributed many varieties of value, especially in the western Plains States. The Chickasaw plum, P. angustifolia, is native in the southern States from Mary land to the Gulf and west to Kansas and Texas. The fruit is oval to spherical, usually bright red, but sometimes yellow. It does not survive in the north. The sand plum of the western Plains, closely related to the Chicka saw, is one of the most valued fruits in Kansas and Nebraska. Two species of plums native in the lower Mississippi Valley are valuable both as native fruits and as sources of cultivated varieties. Both are found from Tennessee and Kentucky west to Kansas and Oklahoma. P. hortulana is late ripening, its fruit nearly round, about one inch in diameter, color, red to yellow. The wild Goose plum, P. munsoniana, is early ripening, fruit round to oval, bright red. Both are late blooming, so the blos soms are likely to escape spring frosts. One other species deserves mention, not because it is widely distributed, but because the quality of the fruit closely approaches that of the European plums. P. subcordata, the Pacific or Western plum, is found in the foothills from central California to central Oregon. The fruit is late ripening, globular, red to purple, about one inch in diameter, and is extensively used for preserves. Improving the American Plum While the colonists who settled along the eastern seaboard gathered plums from the wild to some extent, there was little effort to im prove them during colonial times. Perhaps this was because good-quality European varie ties could be produced in the central and northern colonies at least. Not until settlers crossed the Mississippi were native plums of special merit selected, named, and planted in home orchards. During the last half of the 19th century, literally hundreds of such selections were made and named. Many of these represented little improvement and soon passed out of use. Breeders, both private and in State experi ment stations, have continued efforts to im prove these plums, and a number of varieties are now available that are of great value where European varieties do not thrive. Par ticularly in the Plains States, the North Cen tral States, and in the South, these varieties are more satisfactory for home and local mar ket growing than are any other plums now available.