Saturday, April 23, 2011

Taming the (Un)common Beach Plum

The beach plum (Prunus maritima) is native along the Atlantic coast from southern Maine through Virginia. It is found most commonly on the strip of older, better stabilized sand dunes. Occasionally, it is found growing naturally on inland dunes and sandy patches several miles from the coast. The beach plum is a member of the rose family (family Rosaceae) which includes about 2000 species of trees, shrubs, and herbs worldwide, including service-berries, hawthorns, apples, plums and cherries, and mountain-ashes. The plant is salt-tolerant and cold-hardy. It prefers the full sun and well-drained soil. It spreads roots by putting out suckers but in coarse soil puts down a tap root.

But enough of that botany stuff.

The deep scarlet to purple fruit begins to ripen in late summer and can be picked over a period of about a month. A half inch to an inch in diameter, they are borne regularly year after year in great abundance. The fruits often differ from one bush to another in size, shape, color and taste. The humble beach plum imparted its name to Plum Island, Massachusetts and Plum Island, New York.

The principal use made of the fruit is for preserving. Beach plum jams and jellies are delicious. Many coastal residents consider them to be unequaled. The jam resembles, that made from Blue Damson plums. When jellies are made without the use of pectin, the result is a thick, tart syrup which is relished on hot cakes and waffles.

I associate beach plums with Cape Cod summers, especially the unkempt dune areas found on the outer Cape – Eastham, Wellfleet and Truro. Fondest memories are picking the ripe berries in early September with close friends, bringing bucketfuls back to a rustic cabin on a sea cliff overlooking the cold Atlantic, and turning those critters into delicious jelly. I can still taste it.

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