Chickasaw plums are an easy-to-grow, small native plum that yields bountiful crops of tasty fruit. Read on to learn more about the history and uses as well as growing tips to get your little plum orchard off to a great start.
As a native species, Chickasaw plum trees have not been grafted or created by cross-pollination. Instead, they were cultivated by the Chickasaw and other Natives long before Europeans settled in the Americas.
Botanist William Bartram gave the fruit its English name after the Chickasaw Indian tribe, whom he observed harvesting and eating the plums during his travels in 1773. His book, Travels, seems to be the first English-written publication naming what we now know to be the Chickasaw plum, and details many of his observations of the natural world from his exploration in the southeastern United States and his learning from the native peoples.
“The Chickasaw plumb [sic] I think must be accepted, for though certainly a native of America, yet I never saw it wild in the forests, but always in old deserted Indian Plantations. I suppose it to have been brought from the (southwest) beyond the Mississippi, by the Chickasaws.”
Barton would have observed the Chickasaw in their hereditary lands in Alabama, Mississippi, Kentucky, and Tennessee prior to their forced removal during the Trail of Tears. Bartram’s travels are commemorated by the Bartram Canoe Trail in Alabama.
How do Chickasaw plums taste?
Expect a consistent sweet-tart taste for these plums. These wild plums are perfectly tasty, but are not commonly considered for fresh eating because of their size. The pulp should be juicy, and is among the tastiest of the wild plums.
Ways to Use Chickasaw Plums
The easiest use will be to set a bowl of cleaned plums on your kitchen counter and allow your family or guests to grab handfuls at leisure. This would be much like eating fresh cherries – small, tart-sweet fruit with pits that should be discarded, but they would be lovely in fruit displays.
Given that these trees grow wild and well (you can commonly spot stands along the roadside in Oklahoma), there is a good chance you may come into a large quantity of plums at one time. As such, one of the most accessible options will be to make a delicious jelly.
Kelli’s Kitchen has a great, simple recipe for utilizing the fresh fruit to make a tasty jelly. The only ingredients needed are a big batch of plums, pectin, and sugar. You can also try this pectin-free recipe from Texas Homesteader if you prefer the avoid the pectin texture.
For the more adventurous ready to move past jellies, try making Wild Plum Spritzer. The recipe is non-alcoholic, but it seems that it could be improved by a healthy splash of champagne or prosecco.
Finally, if the plums are at risk of going bad before you have time to deal with them, consider freezing them as a last resort. Given the small size of these plums, it will be a chore, but better than letting your harvest go to waste.
Health Benefits of Chickasaw Plums
Wild plums like Chickasaw plums do not have significantly better nutrition than widely available commercial varieties. You will find that wild plums have very high amounts of Vitamins A and C, and like all plums, good amounts of fiber.
Both the plum fruit and tree have health benefits; check out a Minnetonka Orchards article devoted to the subject.
Where to Buy Chickasaw Plums
If you live in the southeast, for in-person purchases, visit local nuseries that have some more unique trees than the average big box store. Because the Chickasaw plum tree is native to the southeast, you should be able to find the trees at nuseries that deal in local or native stock.
If you find that your local, in-person options are limited, you may have more success online. The variety is growing in popularity has a landscaping tool to prevent erosion, so it is increasingly available.
As far as simply purchasing the fruit rather than a whole tree, your best bet will be roadside fruit stands in the southeast. Local specialty stores in the region may also carry them, but Chickasaw plums are not commercially produced.
How to Grow Chickasaw Plums
In the wild, you will see the trees naturally growing in different ways depending on your part of the country. In the eastern United States, they most commonly grow as single trees rather than in large bunches. As you head west, the trees tend to grow in thorny thickets, which are great for providing summer shade to range animals.
Growing from seed will not produce a clone. If you want to create an identical tree, you will need to start from a cutting.
Appearance and What to Expect in Your New Tree
Many of us make impulse purchases at the nursery of a tree that calls to us and seems perfect in the moment. Before going to the work of digging a hole (surely the worse gardening chore there is), consider the needs of this tree to make the first time the charm.
Keep in mind this tree is native to the southeastern United States, and it is recommending for USDA zones 5 through 9.
This tree’s growth ranges from an almost shrub-like 4 feet tall all the way up to 25 feet tall. Four and 25 feet are outliers, and most nursery stock you get will end up being between 8 and 12 feet. Think of this tree as one that will end up more short and stout than tall and graceful. They also shoot out sidebranches that can be a bit thorny, so perhaps situate this away from your children’s favorite play area.
Look for an area that is full sun to partial shade, and consider whether you want this tree to be part of a thicket or a single tree.
Expect small, 5-petaled, white flowers in very early spring before leaves appear. Edible fruits should be yours in around mid-summer – around mid-July or a bit later. The leaves will be green and narrow, which is where the scientific name of Prunus angustifolia for this tree comes from. Angustifolia means narrow.
The practical use of the trees themselves should not be overlooked. They are increasingly used as part of native soil management plans to prevent erosion. Being drought-tolerant, the trees are helpful to maintain soil in dry areas prone to topsoil erosion from wind and other natural elements.
Humans are not the only lovers of plums, so they will also bring birds, deer, and squirrels to your yard. The trees are also popular with nesting birds.
Planting and Growth
Chickasaw plums like sandy soil, so when you are digging your whole that is at least twice as wide and deep as the root ball, toss in some sand as you backfill if you have heavy clay soil. They do not do well in alkaline soil, and if you have any doubts about the makeup of your soil, check in with your local extension office. They usually offer soil sample testing.
Once established, you can expect your tree to be drought-tolerant, but prior to that, be sure to keep away grass and weeds that will compete for nutrients and water.
Chickasaw plums are considered self-pollinating, but the tree will bear more plentiful yields when within 50 feet of another plum tree. They are considered excellent pollinators that produce large amounts of pollen. This may be something to consider if you either have tree allergies and want to avoid it or are keen to draw in bees and other pollinators.
If you have a vegetable garden struggling to produce squash or pumpins, bringing this tree into the area will help bring the pollinators your vegetables need to reproduce.
Pruning and Suckering
When you plant, be aware that these trees do produce suckers in the hope of spreading into those thorny thickets. Trust me that you do not want to do battle with a well-established stand of suckers. The best method for keeping them at bay is removal soon after sprouting so that you are not stuck with a brittle batch of stubs from mature suckers that are pruned down after they have turned woody. Read more about pruning plums for the best health of your plum tree!
Wild plums like the Chickasaw range from delicious to inedible, so do not assume they are all the same. The Chickasaw will be very different from the larger Japanese plums that we see in grocery stores. You may find that they have many similarities to the Mexican plum. The Mexican and Chickasaw plums have a similar growing habitat, but you will be much more pleased with the flavor and yield of Chickasaw plums.
Native species like the Chickasaw plum are an easy way for gardeners to introduce sustainable elements into their home gardens, and this particular tree will give you the added bonus of tasty fruit.