Real Food Encyclopedia | Plums
Plums (Prunus spp.) are in the same genus as various stone fruits — apricot, cherry, peach — as well as almonds. They can be as small as a cherry (beach plum) and as big as a tennis ball (Santa Rosa plum), shaped like a football (Italian prune plum) or squat like a tomato (cherry plum). They come in shades of yellow (mirabelle plum), apple green (greengage plum) or even deep red with a green streak (satsuma plum). Flavors range from super tart to honeyed, floral to melon.
In the 19th century, a botanist named Luther Burbank trekked across the country from Massachusetts to Santa Rosa, California, where he developed more than 100 varieties of plums (as well as the plumcot, an apricot-plum hybrid). His crossbreeding efforts set the stage for the fresh plum industry in the U.S..
As for the country’s prunes — aka dried plums — the credit goes to Louis and Pierre Pellier, brothers who came to Northern California from France in the mid-1800s to plant Agen prune plums. They grafted these with a wild American plum, resulting in the California prune.
Fun facts about plums:
- Plums were among the first domesticated fruits in Central Asia and Europe. Plum stones believed to be from wild species have been found at Neolithic sites in Ukraine, Germany, Switzerland, Austria and Cyprus.
- In the Middle Ages, the word “plum” could refer to various kinds of dried fruit, such as raisins or dried currants.
- “The Virginia House-Wife” by Mary Randolph, published in 1836 and considered the first cookbook on regional U.S. cuisine, includes a recipe “Magnum Bonum Plums in Brandy.”
- In 2000, the Food and Drug Administration granted permission to the California Prune Board — which was seeking a rebrand — to change its name to the California Dried Plum Board and permanently swap out the word “prune” for “dried plum” on all its packaging.
What to look for when buying plums
No matter which variety you choose, you want taut, firm (but not swollen) skin without bruising, discoloration or soft spots. You’ll know a plum is ripe when it yields to a little pressure from your thumb. Unripe plums will ripen at home in a paper bag in the refrigerator.
All plums have pits, which also vary in size, but most are freestone (meaning the pit separates easily from the flesh) thanks to all the Burbank breeding.
There are dozens of species, but you’re most likely to find these in the U.S. marketplace:
- P. domestica: Also known as the European plum, which includes the prune plum, greengage and egg plum. P. insititia, which includes the damson and bullace, is a subspecies.
- P. salicina: also known as the Chinese or Japanese plum, which Burbank, the aforementioned botanist, crossed with P. domestica to create dozens of cultivars. Most supermarket plums in this country are such cultivar mashups, including Santa Rosa, Burbank, El Dorado, redheart and friar.
Sustainability of plums
The lion’s share of supermarket plums comes out of California, a one-state commodity setup that means long-distance travel is usually required to reach the produce aisle. During off-season, the U.S. imports plums almost exclusively from Chile. In short, commodity plums, no matter what time of year, come with a heavier carbon footprint associated with shipping. It’s a good argument for eating plums from your respective foodshed when they’re in season.
Of the items analyzed in the Environmental Working Group’s 2023 Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce, the conventional plum ranked 23rd of the 46 types of produce tested. If you’re looking to avoid pesticides, look for organic plums.
Traditionally, the plum is a warm (but not super-hot) weather fruit that needs lots of sun, but not too much humidity. This is why they can grow in California many months out of the year. Depending on the variety and growing region, plum season can begin as early as May and go well into the fall. July and August are peak plum season in most parts of the country. Prune plums are typically harvested and dried in August.
According to recent statistics from the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, China is by far the world leader in plum production, with the U.S. sitting near the top of the list. After California, other prominent plum producing states are Oregon, Washington, Idaho and Michigan.
There are several wild plum varieties native to North America:
- P. maritima: also known as the beach plum; grows on sandy dunes along the Atlantic coast, from Maine to Maryland.
- P. subcordata: also known as Pacific, Klamath, Oregon or Sierra plum; grows in southern Oregon and Northern California.
- P. americana: also known as the American plum, wild plum or Marshall’s plum; grows in the central states as well in the East.
- P. angustifolia: also known as Chickasaw, Cherokee, Florida or sand plum; grows in the South.
- P. nigra: also known as Canadian plum or black plum.
As for prunes: By the end of the 19th century, there were 85 dried plum packing plants in California, which remains the world leader in dried plum production. By 1932, California rolled out commercially-produced prune juice.
Plums should be kept in the refrigerator — in a paper bag, if they still need to ripen further — and eaten within a few days of purchase.
Plums are great in baked goods and other desserts — start with the famous plum torte from Marian Burros, a timeless classic first published in The New York Times in 1983. But there are many other ways to eat this luscious fruit, including in savory preparations. Try grilling them (halved, pitted and brushed with olive oil) and garnishing with honey, citrus and chopped basil or Greek yogurt. In her cookbook “Plum Delicious,” Nani Steele suggests poaching plums in a vinegar brine with cinnamon, vanilla and allspice, which will transform into a spiced syrup. She recommends pairing with cheese or with poultry or pork.
Fresh plums are something special, but you can only eat so many. To enjoy plums into the cold months as a remembrance of summer, you can make:
- Chutney to accompany a cheese plate or roast.
- Plum catsup, for glazing next time you grill.
- Plum sauce to keep in the fridge or process in jars for added longevity.
- Plum jam, great for holiday gifts.
- Plum schnapps (for when it gets really cold).
Fresh plums are a moderate source of Vitamin C and other antioxidants. A five-ounce plum contains almost two grams of fiber — and dried plums are loaded with it, with a quarter cup containing 12 percent of the daily recommended value. Prunes have also been studied for their potential to increase bone density. Both plums and prunes are a natural source of sorbitol, a sugar alcohol that can have a mild laxative effect.
A caveat: Prunes are high in oxalates, compounds that pose a potential risk for anyone with kidney or gallbladder conditions.