HORT travels

Exploring the horticultural beauty in every adventure.

American Plum

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American Plum after last night's heavy rains. The sweet fragrance is still evident on the wet blooms.

American Plum after last night’s heavy rains. The sweet fragrance is still evident on the wet blooms.

As I have mentioned before I don’t really have the space for plants offering only 1 season of interest. As with any rule, there are exceptions. The exceptions to my “must have more than 1 season of interest”  are 1) if it is a spring ephemeral, it may stay and 2) if it is edible I will consider a place for it in my landscape.  The American Plum fits into the second category. This native (Prunus americana) small understory tree flowers the same time as Bradford Pears.  Unlike Bradford Pears, the blooms of American Plum smell sweet and wonderful.  Like the Bradford Pear, this tree can be found along roadsides, medians and in fallow fields. Unlike the Bradford Pear, it is supposed to be there. As I walked around my yard a couple of days ago, the scent of the flowers drew me in and I stood for quite awhile with my nose tucked into the white flowers. 

This tree’s flowers have the type of fragrance I am drawn to, sweet, fruity, like the smell of honey or dessert. I am not one for flowery fragrances; not a fan of Lilacs, Hyacinths, Stargazer Lilies or Paperwhites. Some of my favorite flower smells are Swamp Milkweed, Heliotrope, Sweet Alyssum and, yes, American Plum. (Michael Dirr, in the Manual of Woody Landscape Plantscalls the smell “sickly sweet”, eh – to each their own.) Next time you are in the garden center, walk around smelling the flowers, it will give you another way to decide if the plant is worth the space in your yard and the money to buy it. Fragrance adds a dimension to a yard overlooked by many.

Not only do I stand eyeglasses deep in the flowers, inhaling deeply, I have been known to dance around this tree. American Plum, like many fruit trees, requires a pollinator to set fruit. It will not pollinate itself. This means you need to have at least two trees for the native pollinators to fly between transferring pollen from one to the other. This allows for genetic variability and adaptations to occur. Normally this will occur, if you have a pollinator friendly yard (read: no chemical applications and lots of diversity), on its own. In our case, we had only one tree. In the years past, we had no fruit. So my husband ex-husband brought home a tiny American Plum in full flower from the native plant nursery where he works. I was afraid the bees wouldn’t find it in time, so I took the pollination process into my own hands. I lifted that baby flowering plum by its container and slowly moved it around the larger tree, making sure to rub flowers, exchanging pollen between the two. That year we had a bumper crop of edible and delicious plums!

Now we have moved to a new landscape, new soils (clay – ugh!) and less sun. Good thing American Plums thrive in nearly any landscape condition. When we moved we took more than 400 plants with us. We knew the new occupants of our space wanted lots of lawn for their many children and pets, and we spent 5 years slowly replacing lawn with a diverse native landscape and organic vegetable garden. One of the plants we hauled out of there was our American plum.

American Plum ready for transport.

American Plum ready for transport.

The small plum I used to pollinate the large plum didn’t make it. I can’t remember why. In the new home we are in the same predicament. Once again my husband brought home a tiny native plum, flowering away. Once again I find myself doing a little dance touching pistils and stamens together, anticipating those delicious plums.

American Plum flowers in early spring before the leaves and stays small so you can always reach the fruit. It provides shelter and food for a wide variety of native animals, grows in nearly any landscape situation and transplants easily. This tree will fill your yard with sweet scents and your belly with sweet fruit.


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