Of all the fruit trees, it sometimes seems like the most common backyard resident is the plum. Whether you live in Lynden or Lind, if you don’t have a nearby plum tree, chances are you can find one. A neighbor might even give you a big bag of purple fruit.
Although apples, pears, and cherries dominate the commercial tree fruit of Washington, the state produces the second-most plums in the nation. To be fair, California commands that sector, with 97 percent of the plum market.
That doesn’t diminish the plum as a tasty addition to any homegrown suite of fruit. In fact, Washington State University Extension recommends that plums, along with peaches and apricots, might be a good substitute for apples or cherries, because plums “are not regularly attacked by troublesome insect pests, so they may not require multiple pesticide applications during the growing season.”
As Extension educators have noted, “Plum trees are usually vigorous and productive, less prone to disease and nutrition problems than other stone fruit kinds, and can be used not only for fresh eating but also for canning, drying, fruit leathers, and other culinary uses.”
A home gardener can choose from an array of plums to grow, with fruit colors ranging from “classic” purple to bright green, dark yellow, red, gold, and almost black. Although there are a number of cultivars, they are generally classified as European, Asian, and hybrid plums.
The European plum, Prunus domestica, probably originated around the Caucasus region at least two millennia ago. Writings from the ancient Middle East also talk about early cultivation of the Damson plum, Prunus insititia, in the area around Damascus.
On the other side of Asia, the Japanese plum, Prunus salicina, was first domesticated in China thousands of years ago. They were developed further in Japan and spread around the world. Japanese plums are the most common fresh plum available for sale due to a longer shelf life than European plums.
In the United States, plum varieties that dehydrate without fermenting are called prunes. They have high sugar content, and notoriously large amounts of dietary fiber that have a laxative effect. The image of grandpa’s prune juice has led marketers to begin calling their product “dried plums” in recent years.
That fiber is good for you, though, and plums—and prunes—have a number of other health benefits. A medium-sized plum contains over 100 milligrams of potassium, which can help manage high blood pressure and reduce stroke risk. Anthocyanins in the reddish-blue skin of some plum varieties may protect against cancer by picking up free radicals. Plums can also help reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes, as they rank low on the glycemic index and could help control blood sugar.
Growing plums in the Northwest is fairly easy on both the west and east sides of the state, and European and Japanese plums are consistently successful. Some varieties recommended by WSU Extension for the maritime climate of western Washington are Shiro, Methley, Early Laxton, Mirabelle, and Stanley. The European varieties are generally the easiest to grow.
As with all fruit trees, plum and prune trees need to be, well, pruned. The Washington Tree Fruit Research and Extension Center in Wenatchee recommends that you prune very lightly for the first five years. Prune mature trees more heavily, especially if they’ve shown little growth, when all danger from fall or early winter freeze has passed, but before full bloom in spring. Prune the top portion of the tree more heavily than the lower portion.
If you want something a bit different, you can grow Damson and small, round “bush” plums. “They are often quite tart for fresh eating. However, they are very productive, supplying plenty of fruit for jelly, jam, and even wine,” according to Extension.
Plums typically ripen between mid-July and mid-September and flavors range from tart to very sweet. European types have firm-fleshed fruit that is freestone, often used for drying and canning. Japanese and hybrid types have very juicy fruit that is clingstone, and are not well adapted to drying or canning. Some do make excellent jelly.
While you can eat many plums fresh, they’re also great for sauces, compotes, or baked in desserts. Plum sauces match particularly well with pork or poultry.
Dried, salted, or pickled plums make a tasty snack. Many cultures ferment the fruit into plum wine or a kind of cider, such as plum jerkum in England.