All About Beach Plums
Beach Plums, Prunus maritima, are a small wild plums that grow along the dunes and in other coastal habitats from Maine to North Carolina. Most beach plums are a lovely bluish, purple or reddish, pink fruit larger than a cherry, but smaller than a regular plum you might get in the supermarket. If you're really lucky, you may come across a rare golden yellow beach plum. Beach plums have a very distinct and unique taste. The do not taste like those boring old supermarket plums. They have a very complex flavor, and some people say they taste like a mix between a strawberry, a plum and an apricot. The skin can sometimes be tart and acidic, but the flesh inside has a deliciously sweet flavor. The fruit can be eaten raw, but more often it is turned into jam or jelly, or used in dessert sauces, marinades and cocktails. Depending on the habitat they are planted in, the plants can grow up to 10 ft tall like a tree, or 15 ft wide like a low growing spread out shrub. They produce a plethora of fragrant showy white flowers in the spring.
History of the Beach Plum
Beach Plums were reportedly used as food by early Native Americans. Since European explorers arrived by ship, it is not surprising that beach plums were one of the first plants they noticed when they reached the shores of North America. In 1524, explorer Giovanni de Verrazano noted the plums along the shores of southern New York, which he called "damson trees." Later, in 1609, explorer Henry Hudson reported seeing an abundance of "blue plums" on the banks of the river we now know as the Hudson River in New York.
Beach plums have been prized for generations by those who live by the shore. Anyone who grew up on the east end of Long Island or in Cape Cod probably has an older relative or neighbor who knows of a secret spot at the beach with the best plums. People are very secretive about the location of these plants in the wild, because the plants are increasingly rare as more and more of our coastlines have been developed. Even when you are lucky enough to find a beach plum plant at the beach, the fruit can still be quite elusive. This is because the fruit is only ripe for about 1-2 weeks at the end of summer, and the deer always seem to be the first ones to know when the fruit on a particular shrub is ripe. In the wild, beach plum shrubs tend to have high volume fruit production one year, and almost no production the next year. Botanists call this biennial production.
Uses of the Beach Plum
The tasty fruit of the beach plum is used to make many foods: jams and jellies, wines and liquors, syrups for pancakes, syrup for cocktail mixes, purees, chutney, ice cream, sorbet, dessert sauces, pie and tart fillings, and sauces for meats. Beach plum sauces can be found in high end restaurants as a sauce or marinade, especially in duck and pork dishes. Beach plums are high in antioxidants and Vitamin C.
The plants themselves serve an important purpose along northeast US coastlines. Beach plum shurbs have broad root systems that the prevent erosion of dunes. They are very salt tolerant and hardy, which is why they are able to survive the harsh weather conditions in the ocean dunes of the north eastern US. If the plants are covered by blowing sand, they are able to adapt by sending up new branches to the new top of the dune. If you are lucky enough to find a beach plum shrub growing in the dunes in the wild, chances are that you are looking at the top of a much larger shrub, that may have been covered over by sand many times in its life. Wild beach plum plants also provide food for wildlife.
The native beach plum plants we grow can be used in dune stabilization projects and native plant restoration projects.
Beach plum trees and shrubs also make excellent hardy perenial plants for the home gardner, even if you live hundreds of miles from the ocean. Beach plum plants can thrive in any well-drained soil, and can tolerate very hot and very cold weather, and windy conditions. They produce showy fragrant white flowers in the spring, and delicious fruits in the fall. You can trim your beach plum plant to grow as a low shurb, or a tall tree, depending on your preference.