American Plum

Prunus americana

Herbs gallery - American Plum

Common names

  • American Plum
  • Marshall's Plum
  • Wild Plum

The American plum is, just as the name suggests, a variety of Prunus that grows on the American continent. It can be found from the province of Saskatchewan in Canada, to New Mexico in the USA in the south, with its range extending to Québec and Florida in the east.

The American plum tree is widely cultivated in many other areas, because of its fruits. It often becomes naturalized and can be confused with the Canada plum (Prunus nigra). However, both the color and the size of the fruit is different, the one of the American plum being smaller and red. It is a great choice as rootstock for domestic plum varieties and has served as basis for numerous cultivated types.

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The American plum reaches a height of up to 4.6 m and can be classified as either a small tree or an oversized shrub. It enjoys soils with a rough or medium surface but dislikes the ones with fine granulation. It doesn't resist drought, can't grow in the shade and is vulnerable to fire. However, it tolerates frost. The bloom takes place in the middle of spring and the plant grows best during the spring and summer months. Propagation is done by seed, at a slow pace.

Similar to other related species, the American plum produces suckers from its widely spread but shallow root system. It has a wide crown, due to a large number of stems. These are protected by thorns and develop scales as the age. The oval leaves grow in alternate fashion and have a length between 5.1 and 10.2 cm, dark green on top and very pale underneath. Flowers are located on leaf axils and grow either single or in groups. American plum fruits are round, with a diameter of about 2.5 cm.

Like most other varieties of wild plums, the fruits of Prunus americana start to become ripe in June. Harvesting must be done with caution, since the branches have numerous sharp thorns that can cause injuries. The plums are not found in clusters, like cherries or other fruits, and have to be picked up one by one.

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When ripe, the American plums often fall to the ground, especially if exposed to the sun. If they haven't started to rot, they can easily be picked from there. Before they ripe fully, the fruits are firmly attached to their twigs. It is still a good idea to harvest a few of these alongside the ripe ones, since they allow the jelly to hold due to the content of natural pectin and have a specific taste.

Parts used

Fruits, bark.

Uses

The medical benefits of plums have been known and used by traditional practitioners for a very long time. They have been considered effective against many different conditions, like jaundice, fever, diabetes, digestion, constipation or hypertension. Many different forms of simple sugars can be found in American plums, including sorbitol, sucrose, glucose and fructose. Despite the high sugar content, consuming the American plum fruits doesn't increase the glucose levels in the blood too much, since the fiber content balances the effect.

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American plums are very rich in antioxidants, especially polyphenols. These protect tissues from the harmful action of free radicals and could stop mutations at cell level, preventing several types of cancer. American plum fruits also contain caffeic acid, chlorogenic acid, neochlorogenic acid and rutin.

The Native Americans inhabiting the prairies consumed large amounts of plums and still do it today. They ate it in various ways, raw, dried or as a sauce. Some of the tribes that were fond of these fruits are the Teton Dakota, Lakota, Comanche, Crow, Assiniboin, Kiowa, Pawnee, Kiowa, Comanche and Omaha. Chickasaw plums (Prunus angustifolia) were also eaten in large amounts. The Pawnee dried the plums without removing their pits but the other tribes usually discarded them in advance. The plums are often mentioned in the diaries of the early explorers and colonists, who consumed them as food. They are still eaten fresh today and also prepared as jams, jellies, canned products, fruit rolls or as a bakery ingredient.

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Native tribesmen also used the American plum for medical purposes. The root bark of the American plum was scraped and boiled by the Omaha, then used to treat abrasions. Twigs were also cut and tied together to create brooms. Mouth diseases were treated by the Cheyenne with a mixture of crushed plums and salt. Another remedy used by them against diarrhea was prepared by crushing and boiling small roots and bark from old plums with the roots of scarlet thorns (Crataegus chrysocarpa). The root bark was also used in the medicine of the Mesquakies, as a cure for canker sores in the mouth area.

Sprouts and young shoots of American plum were used in the "waunyampi" ceremonies of the Teton Dakota. This ceremony was an offering consisting of a wand made from these parts of the wild plum, after peeling and painting. This ceremony was quite important in their religion, since it included prayers for sick members.

Habitat and cultivation

The American plum is a very resilient species with a high resistance to drought and the ability to grow in any soil type. It is so vigorous that it sometimes require no care at all. This makes it a great choice for cultivation in neglected areas, such as parking lots, medians or other similar locations with low maintenance. Due to its compact size, it can be planted in patios and containers. It enjoys full sun exposure or partial shade. In the wild, American plum can be found on roadsides, riverbanks, prairies, woodlands and pastures.

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The American plum seeds can be used for propagation and the resilient nature of the plants makes them easy to relocate. Use soil with good drainage for best results. The bloom is during the months of April and May, while the fruits can be harvested in August or September. American plum tree produces fruits every year.

Prunus americana can be propagated using cuttings but these don't root easily. Hardwood cuttings are parts of mature wood taken after the leaves have fallen and before new ones emerge in the spring. Successful rooting has been achieved with cuttings at the end of January. Healthy plants located in full sunlight should be selected for the cuttings. The best parts are the centers and base of shoots, avoid using the tips. Basal cuts are immediately below a node and the top cuts are 1.3 to 2.5 cm above a node. Every cutting should include a minimum of two nodes.

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