Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Harvesting Wild Plums (Prunus americana)

One good thing about the unusually warm spring we had this year: we got a great crop of wild plums.  This far north, the plum crop is rather iffy, because a late frost often kills the blossoms.  But not in 2012.  I just finished making jam, fruit leather, and wine from the fruit of our plum thicket.

Wild plums gathered on our land.
The window of opportunity for harvesting these delicious little plums is very narrow.  No sooner do they ripen, than the wind knocks them to the ground, where they are relished by various forms of wildlife.  In fact, it was my chickens who alerted me to the fact that the plums were ripe.  When the roosters find something especially good to eat, they call the hens with a very specific cackle and they all come running.  (This, by the way, is why the Talmud, Eruvin 100b, says we should learn "courtesy from the rooster" -- he lets his hens eat first.)   When I heard my chickens calling and scratching back there in the plum thicket, I knew something was up!  Chipmunks and wild birds were also enjoying the feast.

Wild plums don't keep very well, which is why you will never see them for sale in the store.  If you want to preserve them, you have to process them right away.  We usually make jam, and this year I decided to make fruit leather as well.  The normal way to extract the pulp and juice is to boil the plums and strain out the pits and skins, but this kills the seeds.  I wanted viable seeds to sell in my eBay store, The Happy Rooster, so I pitted them by hand.  A messy job! 

For fruit leather, I loaded the pitted plums, skins and all, into the food processor, set it on puree, then dried the resulting mess in my food dehydrator (which has special inserts for making leathers.  I suppose you could also do it on waxed paper in a low oven.  I'm told the Indians used to dry the pitted plums in the sun, and I've heard of people making solar food dryers.)  These plums are pretty tart, so we tried both a sweetened and non-sweetened version.  Both are delicious!

Getting a clear jelly from these plums is next to impossible, but they make a pretty good jam if you strain out the skins and most of the yellowish pulp.  I use a colander for this, since it is too thick to go through cheesecloth.  This leaves me with a pink slurry.  Following an old traditional recipe, I add one cup of sugar per cup of juice, then boil until it "seals the tines of a fork," or jells when you cool a spoonful.  (I suppose there is a proper temperature if you use a candy thermometer, but I've always done it seat-of-the-pants.)   I find there is enough pectin in the plums to jell on their own, but if you have some apple juice to add, it makes a nice combination.  If for some reason your jelly doesn't jell, you can still use it as a delicious syrup on pancakes or ice cream.

The last product I made is (or soon will be) a gallon of plum wine.  I started making my own wines when we moved to rural Minnesota, because the only kosher wine we could find here was Manischewitz grape, which is cheap and sweet for the local winos but not a vintage that I enjoy.  Over the years I've experimented with making all kinds of wines, some better than others.  Just be sure to use wine yeast, which you can order online, not baking yeast.  My last batch of plum wine was pretty good.  I'll let you know in a few months how this vintage turns out.  L'chaim!

(To add wild plums to your wildlife landscaping, either buy trees from garden catalogues or, if you have the patience to grow trees from seed, you can get seeds from my eBay store, The Happy Rooster  while supplies last.  This is a native species that grows in zones 3-7.)

Wild plum blossoms in spring.  In addition to fruit,
these trees form a thorny thicket that birds like to nest in


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Charles Ek said...

I was just directed here by a cousin. Our grandparents homesteaded in Embarrass, and as kids we picked wild plums on the family farm while Grandpa kept a watch on the bears that frequented the same patch.

My wife and I are big Thoreau fans. Many thanks for your excellent blog post!