Monday, September 26, 2011

Permaculture Plants: Plums

Beautiful purple plums!

Common Name: Plum
Scientific Name: Prunus Prunus species (see below for more details)
Family: Rosaceae

Most plums have yellow flesh, but there are some notable exceptions.

The Greengage Plum can be green inside and out!

The Oriental or "Japanese" Plums can have red or yellow flesh.

I can't imagine any Edible Forest Garden without plum trees laden with fruit.  There are a wide variety to plums from around the world.  They are sweet, tart, spicy, or sweet with tart skins.  The common types of plums are the European hybrids, the Oriental hybrids, the American-Japanese hybrids, and the wild varieties of each of these.  They are oval or round with skin color ranging from almost white-yellow, to bright yellow, green, red, purple, blue, to almost black-purple.  Flesh color is usually yellow to green, but some of the Oriental hybrids can have reddish to purple flesh.  A fresh, perfectly ripe plum is an amazing thing to eat.  I have often eaten five or six at a time when they are at their prime... mmmm... not much better!

A brilliant blue Common European Plum.

Prune Plums, Italian variety

Damson Plums (a.k.a. Damask Plums)

Bullace Plums, White Bullace variety from England

A yellow variety of P. salicina (Oriental or Japanese Plums)

This "Black Splendor" Plum is an American-Oriental hybrid.
Both red fleshed and yellow-green fleshed hybrids are available.


Plums are actually part of genus Prunus, subgenus Prunus, and further divided into three "sections": 
1. Section Prunus (a.k.a. Old World Plums)
2. Section Prunocerasus (a.k.a. New World Plums)
3. Section Ameniaca (a.k.a. Apricots) - yes, those great tasting apricots!

Section Prunus (Old World Plums)
  • P. cerasifera (cherry plum, myrobalan plum) - Zone 5
  • P. cocomilia (Italian plum)
  • P. consociiflora
  • P. domestica - Zone 4-9
    European Plums:
         Common Plum - oval, blue to dark purple, with yellow flesh
         Prunes - oval, blue to purple with yellow-green flesh
         Green Gages
     - round, green with yellow-green flesh
  • P. domestica var. insititia - Zone 4
         Damsons or Damask plum - oval, dark blue to indigo with yellow-green flesh
         Bullaces - round, "white", yellow, green, blue, or purple with yellow-green flesh
  • P. salicina - Zone 6-10
         Oriental ("Japanese") Plums - round or oval, yellow or red, with red to yellow flesh
  • P. simonii
  • P. spinosa (blackthorn or sloe)

Section Prunocerasus (New World Plums)
  • P. alleghaniensis (Allegheny plum)  - Zone 5
  • P. americana - Zone 3-8
         American Plum -
    round to oval, yellow to red-purple with yellow-green flesh
  • P. americana var. niagra (Canada plum) - Zone 3
  • P. angustifolia (Chickasaw plum) - Zone 5
  • P. angustifolia var. watsonii (sandhill plum) - Zone 5
  • P. hortulana (hog plum) - Zone 5
  • P. maritima (beach plum) - Zone 3
  • P. mexicana (Mexican plum)
  • P. munsoniana (wild goose plum) - Zone 5
  • P. nigra (Canada plum, Black plum)
  • P. × orthosepala (P. americana × P. angustifolia)
  • P. subcordata (Klamath, Oregon, or Sierra plum)

Section Armeniaca (apricots) - treated as a distinct subgenus by some botanists - will be discussed in a separate post later.
  • P. armeniaca (apricot) - Zone 5-9
  • P. brigantina
  • P. mandschurica (Manchurian apricot) - Zone 3-9
  • P. mume (Chinese plum, Japanese apricot)
  • P. sibirica
Blossoming Plum, by Chinese artist Wang Mian from the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368)

Plums have been cultivated by humans for thousands of years, likely by the Chinese first.  Confucius (551 B.C. - 479 B.C.) discussed the plum frequently in his writings and songs of popular Chinese culture, which means that it had probably been cultivated for hundreds to thousands of years before that.  In 65 B.C., Pompey the Great brought the plum to the Roman orchards, and plums were spread through to the Mediterranean by Alexander the Great (356 B.C. - 323 B.C.).  Colonists in America found the Native Americans using the wild plum in many ways.  Luther Burbank has likely contributed toward improving and hybridizing plums than any other single person in history.


  • The earliest mention of the Plum was by Confucius in 479 B.C.
  • Plums are the second most cultivated fruit behind apples.
  • There are over 140 varieties of plum sold in the United States alone, no one has a good number for the worldwide number of varieties.
  • All European and European varieties of plum are "freestone" meaning the flesh easily separates from the pit.
  • Oriental or Japanese plums and their hybrids are "clingstone" meaning the flesh clings to the pit.
  • The plum skin is responsible for the stimulation of bowel movements. 

Plums can be used for hedgerows as this P. cerasifera (cherry or myrobalan plum)

Primary Uses:

  • Fresh eating
  • Dried (Prunes!) - plums dry best when halved and de-stoned (the large pit removed)
  • Juice
  • Jams, Jellies, Preserves
  • Baked, Poached, Cooked, Grilled
  • Baked goods (like pies!)
  • Frozen
  • Saladito - dried and salted prunes
  • Pickled
  • Wine
  • Brandy (distilled Plum Wine) - most commonly called Slivovitz
  • Plum Jerkum (cider-like alcoholic beverage)

Secondary Uses:

  • Scent - fragrant, beautiful blossoms
  • Food and shelter for wildlife
  • General insect nectar source
  • Can be coppiced
  • Hedgerows
  • Windbreaks
  • Stabilizing banks and gullies - less domesticated plants can tolerate flooding and their shallow, spreading roots and suckers minimize erosion
  • Skins and Roots of some plants can be used to make a red or purple dye

  • Dwarf: 0.5 - 1 bushel (18-35 liters)
  • Standard: 1-2 bushels (35-70 liters)

Harvest when ripe (slightly soft to the touch) and easily part from the stem .  July - October depending on the species and variety

Ripe plums do not store fresh for long.  Hard, unripe plums can be stored in a loosely closed paper bag for a few days until soft.  When ripe, the plums can be stored in the refrigerator for a few days as well.  
USDA Hardiness Zone: Varies (see SPECIES above)
AHS Heat Zone: Old World Plums 8-3; New World Plums 8-2; Oriental Plums 9-3
Chill Requirement: 200-1,750 hours/units depending on the species and variety

Plant Type: Medium-sized Shrub to Medium-Sized Tree
Leaf Type: Deciduous 
Forest Garden Use: Canopy Tree for small Forest Garden, Sub-Canopy (Understory) Tree, Shrub
Cultivars/Varieties: Many species are available (see SPECIES above) with many hybrids.

Some species are self-fertile, but most require cross-pollination from other varieties.  Even those that are self-fertile will often produce more if cross-pollinated.  Old World Plums from other Old World Plums or hybrids thereof.  Oriental Plums from other Oriental Plums or hybrids thereof.  American Hybrid Plums with other American Hybrids from which it was derived.  Bottom line: just make sure you have at least two similar varieties in your yard or garden.  

Flowering: May-June

Life Span: 
  • Years to Begin Bearing: 2-6 years, depends on the rootstock.  Smaller adult plants will bear sooner.
  • Years to Maximum Bearing: 4-8 years
  • Years of Useful Life: Can be almost indefinite if old wood is removed and new shoots allowed to mature, but otherwise plums are not very long-lived trees.

Plum tree in blossom.

Size: Varies on the species and they type (there are a variety of rootstocks), but can range from 3-35 feet (1-10 meters) tall and wide.  Oriental and European Plums are more treelike, and American or American Hybrids are more shrublike. 
Roots: Shallow and wide spreading.  Will send up shoots from the base of the tree and form a thicket if allowed.
Growth Rate: Medium to Fast

Showing the spreading nature of the plum.
Photo of P. cerasifera (cherry plum, myrobalan plum)

Light: Prefers full sun
Shade: Tolerates light shade (about 50%)
Moisture: Medium (although a few species are more drought resistant)
pH: most species prefer fairly neutral soil (6.1 - 7.0)

Special Considerations for Growing:
Moths, rather moth larvae, can cause significant damage to plums.  Encourage predators of moths (like Bats) and moth larvae (like Ichneumon Wasps, Trichogramma Wasps, etc.).  Bacterial canker  can also be problematic in humid climates, so chose varieties that are resistant to bacterial canker.

Typically with grafting.  Will need at least 13 weeks stratification (cold, moist conditions) for seeds to germinate.

Because plums are tip bearers, meaning they bear fruit at the ends of new growth branches (spurs), minimal pruning is required.  Oriental Plums are tip bearers, but they will also bear fruit on one year old spurs.  Pruning should be done in summer to early fall.  May need some thinning of fruit, because a branch laden with heavy fruit may break under the weight.  Pruning to created shorter branches can also prevent limb breaking.


  • Many varieties of plums have thorns.  This can be a good thing if you are trying to make a hedge.  Many of the hybrids do not have them.
  • Spreading nature.  Again, this can be a good thing if you are using the plum as a windbreak or slope stabilizer.  Some pruning of stray suckers may be needed if you want to avoid this.
  • Pits (seeds) and leaves contain cyanide.  All Prunus species (plums, cherries, peaches, almonds) contain cyanide.  The concentration is much lower in plums, but it is still present.
The bark of most, but not all, plums have a circular, band-like appearance.
Photo of P. angustifolia (Chickasaw plum)


  1. This red flesh with the green skin is Green red variety from the watermelon family of plums.

    Its origin is from Israel

  2. Great Post. But why don't mark every fruits Botanic name. It may more helpful.

  3. Don't some common plums have yellow skin? For example yellow pershore or warwickshire drooper.

    1. Moths, rather moth larvae, can cause significant damage to plums.

  4. Great post John, thanks for sharing.

  5. Moths, rather moth larvae, can cause significant damage to plums.


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