National Geographic : 1951 Sep
Plums and Prunes from Europe and West Asia M OST important commercially of the plums grown in the United States are those which came here from southwestern Asia by way of Europe. These are of the species Prunus domestica, of which three main types lead in production here. First in quantity and market value are the drying plums, or prunes. These are fairly large, firm-fleshed, meaty plums with a high sugar content. They can be dried without removing the pit. In the sun or in dehydra tors, these are dried in tremendous quanti ties and form our familiar dried breakfast prunes. More than 200,000 tons a year of these are shipped from western States, chiefly California. Some varieties of this type are also widely used as fresh fruit, and many are also canned. Production centers for these two categories are Oregon, Washington, and Idaho. The second type of European plum is popularly called the Greengage or Reine Claude group. These fruits are nearly round, light green to golden yellow when ripe, and the flesh adheres to the pit. They are gen erally softer fleshed than the prune group and are not suitable for drying. Many varie ties in this group are of excellent quality. They are widely grown in home gardens and in small commercial orchards near market centers, but do not enter extensively into commerce. The third group varies from the second mainly in size and shape. These are the Egg plums, very large, generally long-oval in shape, sometimes with a neck at the stem end. They vary from yellow to purple in color. One other species which came by way of Europe, P. institia, is also grown in this country. These are the small, nearly round to oval Damson type, named for the city of Damascus and greatly prized for jam and plum butter. The domestica plums are commonly called European, but it is quite certain that the original home of the species is not Europe but rather western Asia. A number of bota nists have reported the species as apparently native in the area south of the Caucasus Mountains to the Caspian Sea. Romans Had "a Vast Number" Plums do not thrive in tropical or subtropi cal climates. The Egyptians left no record of them. The first Roman writer to mention them was Pliny. In the first century he de scribed several kinds briefly and referred to "a vast number of varieties." The major areas of plum growing in Europe developed north of the Mediterranean countries, and apparently the growing of domestica type plums in those countries is rather recent. According to European his torians, prunes were introduced into Hungary from Turkistan late in the 15th century. All the Balkan countries are now important prune producers. The Reine Claude group takes its name from Queen Claudia of France, whose hus band, Francis I, ruled at the time of their in troduction into that country, about 1500. A little later they were introduced into Eng land by Sir William Gage, whence came the name Greengage. Thus it may be presumed that these plums were not widely grown in Europe before the settlement of America. There is only meager data as to their intro duction into America. The French brought them to the Maritime Provinces of Canada, and undoubtedly the English brought them to their colonies. Domestica plums did not assume an important place in American hor ticulture, however, until after the Revolu tion, and did not reach the proportion of a major crop until the settlement of the Pa cific States. These plums and prunes require an equa ble climate for best development. They bloom early in the spring, and in many loca tions are subject to frost damage and loss of crop. The fruit cracks badly and is sub ject to decay under heavy rainfall conditions. Thus in the eastern United States only the most favored fruit sections, such as the lake area of western New York, can achieve much success with them. In the valleys of the Pacific States the domestica plums are ideally adapted and reach maximum production. There all the prunes for drying are produced, and large quantities are commercially canned or shipped fresh. Damsons Got to Europe First Damson plums apparently were native not only in western Asia but across most of Europe. Pits of this type of plum have been found in the lake dwellings of Switzerland. The recorded history of the Damson is older than that of other species. Greek poets of the 6th century B. c. mention them. The selected, improved varieties, however, appear to have come originally from western Asia. The Damson types were introduced into the Colonies and, prior to the Revolution, appear to have been grown more widely and suc cessfully than the domesticas. These tart, spicy plums are now widely disseminated in those parts of the United States having a mod erate climate. They are produced mainly in home gardens and for local markets. Dam son jam or plum butter is greatly esteemed by most of those who know it.