What are Wild Plums?
Throughout the United States there are small trees, often colonial, that bloom white in the spring, and give way to plum flavored fruit in late summer as small as a bit bigger than a dime or almost as large as a half dollar. These are referred to as Wild Plums, in the Prunus genus. The Prunus genus has given birth to many of our cultivated (bred for food) fruits like Apricots, Peaches, Cherries, Plums, Almonds, and Nectarines. Wild Plums refers to uncultivated (unbred, wild) that are native to the United States and within Ohio, Kentucky, and Indiana these are Prunus americana - American Wild Plum, Prunus hortulana - Hortulan Plum, Prunus munsoniana - Wild Goose Plum, Prunus mexicana - Big Tree Plum, Prunus nigra - Canada Plum, and Prunus angustifolia - Chickasaw Plum. I should note that Canada Plum is only native to Northern Ohio and Northern Indiana when considering these 3 states (OKI). Follow this link for the current understanding of the ranges for these species, amongst other Prunus species in the U.S.
Wild Plums were widely cultivated by indigenous people, especially east of the Mississippi River where most of the Wild Plums are understood as native to. Some colonizer journals noted extensive Wild Plum, American Hazelnut (Corylus americana), Wild Crab Apple (Malus coronaria) thickets promoted and managed by indigenous people for food, so thick horses couldn't navigate through them. These fruit and nut bearing thickets would have required full-sun to be productive, so one can imagine these plantings within deep soil grasslands/prairies or previously forested land. Whether on flat land or hillsides these perennial crops would have produced well.
Before colonization, industrial agriculture, and the introduction of invasive plants from other continents, Wild Plums would have naturally grown in prairies, shrub/scrubland thickets, wetlands, and open savannas. Indigenous cultures have also cultivated wild plums amongst many other native plants. They're an open habitat dependent species that cannot persist in forests due to shade intolerance.
Pictured here is Prunus americana, American Wild Plum, cut back by a roadside maintenance crew, surrounded by invasive plants from all sides, but still managing to flower on top. The green below them is Bush Honeysuckle (Lonicera maackii).
The Crisis at Hand
Invasive species, specifically Bush Honeysuckle (Lonicera maackii), Autumn Olive (Elaeagnus umbellata) have overtaken the majority of the available environments that Wild Plums could have reproduced in. Pictured to the left are Prunus americana - American Wild Plum with Bush honeysuckle grow underneath them after a road management crew cut back the edge of the wild plum canopy. Behind these wild plums (not pictured) are Autumn Olives. Between the two of these invasives, the wild plums are surrounding on all sides. Though they still are flowering white on top, so why doesn't this colony produce fruit/seed?
Isolation of Wild Plum Colonies
If you were to walk into this thicket you'd see 3 perhaps 4 individual wild plum tree trunks supporting those white flowers, making it seem as though there are 3, perhaps 4 wild plum trees. As stated before, most species of wild plums are colonial which means these individual tree trunks were all at some point part of 1 trees root system that gave birth to new sprouts from the ground. This is aesexual reproduction, so each one of these trees are of the same genetics and same original wild plum tree. For a wild plum to produce fruit/seed, two genetically distinct colonies or two genetically distinct trees must be close enough for pollinators to cross-pollinate them in order to reproduce through seed/fruit. The colony pictured above is not only surrounded by invasives, but it's also isolated from the nearest wild plums which are over 200 feet away, so these never fruit. Invasives are mostly to blame for the isolation of wild plum colonies, as wild plums have more edge habitat than ever to be able to reproduce in, it's that their edge habitats are dominated by invasive shrubs primarily.
Loss of co-dependent seed dispersers (No one eats the fruit!)
Wild Plums are an unique fruit in our ecosystems in that they are a sugary fruit that is too large for most birds to disperse. The size of the fruit suggest that larger animals, particularly large mammals would be responsible for the swallowing and depositing of wild plum fruits around the landscape. Bears are notorious fruit lovers, known for gorging on pounds of fruits like American Persimmon in the fall to pack on fat. It's been reported that Bear species, Wild Turkey, Foxes, and even Wolves consume wild plums but most of these, especially Bear and Wolves have been removed from our ecosystems. While Racoon and Possum will take some wild plums (some persimmon too), nothing can swallow down hundreds of wild plum seeds and disperse them like bear can wandering their large territories in search of an easy meal. Conveniently, Wild Plums also fall to the ground before they are ripe, and finish ripening on the ground further suggesting a ground dwelling animal, large enough to swallow them whole, should be the main disperser. In my observation, Racoon, Possum, and White Tail Deer will let the large majority of Wild Plums rot on the ground before they take on the duty of dispersing a significant amount of the seeds, which makes it easy to harvest wild plums. Without hungry bears or abundant turkey populations roaming the natural landscape, or humans stepping up to be the modern primary seed disperser, Wild Plum fruit/seeds most often will first become ant food as they rot, and then rodents and weevils will harvest the pits to extract the almond like kernel inside destroying the seed. Humans must fill the niche of being the primary seed disperser as long as Bear and Turkey Populations are scarce or absent.
A Local Solution (Ohio, Kentucky, Indiana)
The OKI Wild Plum Conservation Project, lead by Indigenous Landscapes
Being a person who is working to see native plant based agriculture movement become a future reality of the U.S. landscape, I'm interested in the opportunity to conserve Wild Plum species through letting them earn a place in our local foods systems. Most people have had bad experiences trying to grow non-native fruit trees, yet these Wild Plums existed without humans taking care of them for hundreds of thousands of years on this continent, so when they're properly placed and established, they take care of themselves. This is true of all native plants given that the environment meets their needs, with the exception that invasive plants must be managed to ensure their long-term survival.
1. Partnering with private citizens to plant small groves of cataloged/tracked wild plums that are all grown from locally collected seed (in our nursery), is a way to ensure at least for the next few decades no wild plum species will be extirpated (considered locally extinct). These colonies will all be tracked and registered through the Wild Plum Conservation Project into their fruition.
2. Partnering with parks, to volunteer to remove the invasive plants from around their existing wild plum groves, collect fruit/seed from those groves, and reintroducing more genetically distinct individuals of the same species around those groves will be another way to ensure long-term conservation. Part of this is making sure isolated colonies receive the correct species to cross pollinate with when we reintroduce the wild plums back into the parks in agreed upon areas. Arboretums looking to have a hand in conservation of these species will also be worked with to create protected groves for long-term seed collection and public display.
3. Selecting wild plums that have the largest yields and best flavors for native plant based agriculture, will also help secure the future of wild plums, which would require public promotion and awareness raising of these low-maintenance native fruit trees. We also have a local 6-10 acre native plant based agricultural project in the works which will feature a wild plum orchard grown from locally collected fruit/seed where people can experience the wild plums first hand.
HOW TO GET INVOLVED
1. Contributing Seed, learning how to recognize wild plum colonies is fairly easy. You need to search sunny edge habitats in April looking for profuse white blooms typically in rural areas, then work on getting permission from the land owner to collect the fruit that will form in August. Contributing seed to our nursery from as many colonies and species as possible will help increase the genetic diversity of the seedlings we grow to distribute back into the landscape. We'll identify the species for you, but we will need fruit, leaf, and bud picture-close ups or samples which we'll instruct you how to gather.
2. If you work for a park system alerting staff to be on the lookout for these white blooming small trees in April, and either growing the trees out yourself and managing the invasive plants yourself, or partnering with us for assistance in conserving your wild plum colonies would be a great way to contribute. If you work for an arboretum, getting a grove of at least 3 planted is significant, as when open grown these trees will produce a lot of fruit/seed for future conservation efforts. They're also a nice ornamental tree for an arboretum or park .
3. Become a protector and/or promoter of wild plums by educating the public about native plant agriculture, sharing or selling your wild plum jellies, and establishing registered wild plums from our nursery would all be good ways to contribute. Wild Plums earn their keep by producing fragrant showy blooms, attracting hordes of pollinators, and most colonies create good or great flavored fruits.
If either of these 3 options appeal to you, email Solomon Gamboa at Pioneerlandscapesllc@gmail.com for more info.
Please note that this year we have collected well over 500 wild plum seeds from different species and different colonies of wild plums, and will be growing them out in our nursery next year, but these aren't available in mass this year in our nursery. Lastly, see this flickr album of the populations of Wild Plum we've located and conserved so far though seed collection, and soon through invasive plant removal. We've collected and labled seed for genetic diversity regardless of fruit quality/size, and we've also collected and labled seed based on fruit quality/size for indigenous agriculture. Click the photo to the right to shift to the next photo.