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All About the Flatwood Plum

What exactly is a flatwood plum? If you’re not familiar with this plum variety, you are not alone – they usually grow in the wild. Flatwood plums are a little-known gem for the home orchard.

Flatwood plums doesn’t taste like anything else, but is often mistaken for its sister plum the Chickasaw. If you want to learn how to tell flatwood plums and chickasaw plums apart, what flatwood plums looks like, how to use them, and more, keep reading!

Flatwood plums
Flatwoods Plum Tree with Blossoms. Prunus umbellata

Where Does the Flatwood Plum Come From?  

Prunus umbellata is the scientific name for the flatwood plum. You may also know the variety as a “hog plum” or a “sloe plum,” mostly because farmers feed these wild plums to their pigs. But where exactly does the plum come from?

Where do prunus umbellata grow? 

Also known as a sloe plum, hog plum, and prunus umbellata, the flatwood plum variety usually grows in the wild. That’s why you’ve never seen them at a grocery store!

While prunus umbellata can grow in many types of environments, they are native to East Texas. If you live in Virginia or Florida, you are sure to find thickets of flatwood plums here and there.

Where to Find Flatwood Plums

Grocery stores and most plant nurseries don’t sell them, but if you want to grow flatwood trees, you can find them for sale online. The trees are beautiful and hardy, which makes them the perfect addition to your backyard. Want to try the fruit? Flatwood plums are sold at local farmers’ markets across North America.

What the Flatwood Plum Looks Like

You can tell the flatwoods plum by its overall structure. Reaching a maximum height of only 15 feet, a flatwood plum tree is pretty short. It’s the perfect tree for landscaping because it is easy to maintain and grows beautiful flowers.

Sometimes a hog plum can grow as a shrub. The tree is extended from one trunk, giving way to thin and thorny branches and a crown that sometimes forms thickets. The trunk is very thick around, so the thickets almost look like blueberry bushes.

 The Flatwoods tree’s flowers put on a show. They are known as street plants- they show off their flowers and leaves more than their fruits. When flatwood plum plants are used as street trees, they are used more for decoration and must be pruned accordingly. The flower color varies from the color white to cream to gray. The leaves are also beautiful, which are green and turn yellow in fall.

 Flatwood plums are round and purple, with a diameter of .5 to 1 inch. Even when they’ve been on the tree ripe for a month, they remain firm because they are naturally dry. A flatwood tree wasn’t developed to produce like a Santa Rose or Elephant Heart, so the plums are scattered over the tree.

What Does a Flatwoods Plum Taste Like? 

Wild Flatwood Plums on a Branch.

 Flatwoods contain a chemical called hydrogen cyanide, making the fruit taste too bitter when you first bite into it. The bitterness fades to a tart and eventually sweet flavor. Hydrogen cyanide is a common acid in the rose family that makes fruit and other sources bitter or tart, like a fresh almond. With just the right amount of sugar, Flatwoods are perfect for jellies and jams.

Is the Flatwood Plum Safe to Eat?

Did you hear the word “cyanide” and panic? Don’t worry just yet. In prunus umbellata trees, the hydrogen cyanine makes the fruit bitter and makes the tree and its leaves toxic. Scientists have proven that the plum is slightly toxic as well. Even so, in small quantities, it improves digestion, stimulates respiration, and is actually found healthy.

 Don’t swallow the pit of a flatwood plum- this is where most of the toxicity is concentrated. Depit the plum before making jam; just like you would decore an apple before making apple juice. The fruit will always come back next year!

The History of Flatwood Plums

Native Americans were the first to discover prunus umbellata growing in the shade of the woods. That’s why they’re called “forest plants.” These fruits’ discovery proved helpful because a flatwood plum has many uses, from medicine to decorations. Furthermore, the plants are wild and resistant to diseases and most pests (but small critters like caterpillars can always be a problem.)

 To pick flatwood plums, Native Americans grabbed hold of the branch with the fruit on it, the plum with the other hand, twisted the plum gently, and pulled it off. This way, they would be able to get the fruit off without damaging the tree.

Early 1800s settlers of North America depended on the hog plum, their name for Flatwoods. They ate them themselves (seed or no seed) and fed them to the livestock. They learned to make desserts like jellies and jams and pies using hog plums. They did not know that the fruit was toxic in a large quantity, but they probably learned to avoid large portions after a stomachache or two!

Mixed Up! Is It a Chickasaw Plum, Hog Plum, or Flatwood Plum? 

Feeding on a Chickasaw Plum

Flatwoods plum may seem very simple, but the variety often gets mixed up with its sister plum, Prunus angustifolia, even by the experts! The angustifolia’s common name is the chickasaw plum.

The Chickasaw is closely related to the Flatwoods plum family and is part of the same species. There are too many similarities to know which is which off hand. Here is how to tell apart a Chickasaw plum and a Flatwood plum.

Similarities Between Chickasaw and Flatwood Plums

A few similarities between Chickasaws and Flatwoods are that they both:

  • have thorny, skinny branches
  • have a crown that forms a thicket or shrub
  • are native to America and were discovered by Native Americans
  • have a similar pattern for bloom time
  • have flowers that flower white, cream, or gray 

How to Tell Chickasaw Plums and Flatwood Plums Apart

Here are some differences:

  • Chickasaw plums only grow through the summer, while Flatwoods plums can grow through fall in specific environments.
  • Flatwoods have a deeper red color once they are fully ripe.
  • The flowers on flatwoods are smaller.
  • Chickasaws are much sweeter.
  • Chickasaws have glandular tips of red or yellow.
  • Flatwoods have only a few root suckers, while Chickasaws have many.

Still can’t tell the trees apart? Don’t worry. Chickasaw plums are edible, and you can use them for the same purposes. If you love the flavor of flatwood plum jam, just wait till the fruit is ripe and taste test it. 

All About Growing Flatwood Plums

Flowering Plum Tree
Flowering Plum Tree

Flatwood plants are tough and can handle a lot. Flatwood plums thrive in warm climates and are native to Texas. These plants are pretty easy to keep alive once you know how to care for them, but they won’t be happy in cold environments.

Where to Plant a Flatwood Plum Tree

Be sure to plant your flatwood plum tree in acid-neutral soils. Plant the flatwood in a semi-shaded spot and give it a water supply if planted in soil with a lot of sand in it. Don’t overwater- the plant is native to Texas and does well in dry soil.

Planters have to provide a hog plum tree with plenty of room to grow because their roots spread out 15 feet. Shade isn’t essential- it can grow without the shade, but it needs to be in a place where it can get about 2-6 hours of sunlight. Its USDA- hardiness zones are 8A, 8B, and 9A.

If you plant a flatwood plum in a warmer environment like Texas, you should plant it in the winter. If you live in a cool place like Minnesota, plant a flatwood plum in the summer but bring it inside in the winter.

When Does a Flatwood Plum Produce Fruit? 

 Flatwoods aren’t called “sloe” for nothing- they are slow producers. A flatwood plant’s growth rate to fully mature is 5 to 6 years, then it may start producing, but the tree doesn’t have very many bountiful seasons.

 Flatwood plums have a habit of producing large amounts of fruit only every 3 to 4 years, but the plant can last up to 40 years! The plant doesn’t have a consistent flower bloom time. It blooms any time a year- midsummer, mid-autumn, anytime they feel like it. This is why your flatwood plum tree is such a beautiful addition to your landscaping!

Prunus umbellate needs a cross-pollinator of a similar variety. Chickasaw plums, cherry plum, or some other flatwood plum trees would work well. Ideally, you should make sure there is a nearby beehive.

How to Use Flatwood Plums

Plum Jam
Plum Jam

If you’re having trouble finding decorations for a special occasion, the flatwood tree’s beautiful flower clusters and blooms make a perfect display. Even though the name “hog plum” isn’t beautiful, the tree is a lovely addition to landscaping.

While flatwood plum trees aren’t known as much for their fruit as their flowers, there are plenty of uses for the plums. Of course, you can eat them right off the tree in small quantities. If you have pigs, they’ll be sure to think the “hog plums” are treats! You can also make them into all kinds of fruit preserved recipes.

Flatwoods aren’t always available, so if you see some at a local market, try a few and see how you like them. Perhaps you’ll even want to try these recipes!

Flatwood Plum Recipes

Like the information on Flatwoods? Learn about other kinds of plums as well!

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