Italian plums are a sweet, oblong fruit that steal the show in German baked goods during fall and winter. This tree is perfect for home-growers in the United States because Italian plums are rare finds in supermarkets, so a tree of your own will give you a steady source of these seasonal fruit. Read on to learn about Italian plums, their uses, and how to grow your own!
What are Italian plums?
Italian plums, also called Italian prune plums, are a European plum. They look much different than the commonly available plums in United States supermarkets. Italian plums are about the size of a large strawberry, and they have an oblong shape rather. Look for very dark purple skin often dusted with a cloudy film.
Removing the pit is fairly easy with these plums because they are a freestone pit, meaning that the pit pops out and lacks the tough, fibrous bits that hold some pits to the fruit meat.
History of Italian Plums
Italian plums are native to the the Mediterranean coastal regions of Italy, and although they are named after their country of origin, they are not a favorite there. Instead, these plums are a hit in Germany and feature in many Germany desserts. In part, this is because of the Germany affinity for plums; 41 percent of Germans say that the plum is their favorite fruit!
Picking Italian plums, or Zwetschgen, in September, is a German end-of-summer ritual. But Germans value the plums for more than just eating; the dried fruits are turned in to plum people dolls that are popular in Christmas markets. The plum people dolls are symbols of good luck, with the thought that you will never be without gold or and happiness if you have a plum person in your house.
What do Italian plums taste like?
These prunes are known for their sweet flavor that becomes deeper with baking. You can eat them fresh and plain, but you will likely find them lacking in comparison to the common red or black plum found in grocery stores. They are smaller, so you need a handful to make a decent snack. The firm skin makes a bit of a snap when you bite into it, much like biting into a crusty piece of bread.
Italian plums lose the fresh-eating contest, but they win the baking contest. That firm skin helps them hold up well when baked, and the sweet flavor deepens and becomes more complex when exposed to heat.
How do I use Italian plums?
You will have so many options for using your Italian plums! The most common uses will be for baking, drying, and making brandy, but you can also eat them fresh.
These plums are famous for their baking uses in southern Germany, particularly in cakes. Here are some of the most icon German dishes featuring Italian prune plums:
Plum cake (Zwetschgenkuchen) – Make this on a baking sheet for crowds for in a Springform pan for a fancier presentation. This may remind you more of an apple crumble than cake. Look for other versions of this same dish describing it as a tart.
Plum dumplings (Zwetschgenknoedel) – Forget everything you know about apple dumplings. The only thing these two have in common is that they come out in a rounded form. Plum dumplings use buttered bread crumbs to make a crispy exterior rather than pastry dough. These are not intended to be super sweet, but somewhere between sweet and savory. They are perfect for brunch.
You can dry your Italian plums into prunes for storage. You will not be limited to only eating them as plain prunes. You can later use them in baked dishes or in trail mix. You may be surprised how tasty a homemade prune can be when compared to the mass-market prunes we have here in the United States. Or, if you find you do not like the packaged prunes, try prunes made from uncommon plums like the Italian plum.
Americans may not have the cultural tradition of gifting prune people, but this is a tradition I would love to see brought into the mainstream in the United States. The dolls symbolize good luck and are gifted during the holidays as well as life events like birthdays and weddings.
They’re fairly simple to make, and can be customized for any holiday or decor. Halloween-themed plum dolls in a macabre style would be such a fun craft with children. Or, use the sugar plum recipe above and have the quintessential holiday treat while creating your festive prune people. Visit Bella Online for a tutorial.
Whether in plum or prune form, Italian plums will do your body good.
Plums and prunes are a fantastic source of potassium, calcium, phosphate, and Vitamins C and B. The skins provide antioxidants, and of course, dietary fiber.
We all know grandmothers push prunes when you have stomach woes, but why? This one actually is not an old wives tale.
Plums and prunes have insoluble and soluble fiber. Each type helps you in a different way. Insoluble fiber promotes regular bowel movements, and soluble fiber assists with digestion and the absorption of nutrients from your food. Prunes can also increase the frequency of bowle movements because they have sorbitol and chlorogenic acid.
Just a serving or two of plums or prunes can improve digestive health. For those struggling with implementing prunes, try combining prune and apple juice and serve over ice. Increase the amount of prune juice as your palate permits.
How do I grow Italian plums?
To get a regular, affordable supply of prune plums, you need to plant your own tree. They grow in hardiness zones 5-9. Keep in mind these trees are native to an arid coastal area in the Mediterranean.
Trees like this can certainly withstand cold winters once established, but an ill-timed hard, early freeze on a new sapling or a late May freeze on fruit buds can damage the tree and your hoped-for harvest. That said, they are the most cold-hardy of the European plum variants.
Because these are native plums rather than a variant carefully created by cross pollination, you can actually grow your own Italian plum trees from the seed of a ripe fruit. Let the seed set outside over the winter, and then plant after the cold period has ended.
You can plant a single Italian plum and expect fruit because it is self-pollinating. However, an easy way to boost your harvest yield is to plant a second plum tree within 50 feet.
Plant in well-draining soil. Add sand to your soil if it is slow to drain (for example, soils with a heavy clay composition). For the most flowers, and consequently the most fruit, plant in full sun and water weekly until established.
These trees are among the easiest fruit trees to grow, so they are great for gardeners just getting started.
Expect your harvest in late summer to early fall in 3 to 6 years! You will know when they are ripe because they will drop to the ground; be sure you beat the squirrels and birds to the fruit of your labors.
Where to buy Italian plums?
If your local nursery or tree farm does not carry these trees in stock, turn to one of the many online retailers providing a variety of plants to home gardeners across the country.
One of my favorites is FastGrowingTrees.com. They have great customer service and will delay shipment until your area warms up enough to sustain a newly planted tree. You can also check out NatureHills.com for bareroot trees shipped straight to your home.
When choosing the best tree for you, take a look at some similar plums.
If you are looking for a plum that offers a sweet taste and is good for fresh eating and baking, you may like the elephant heart plum.
- Do people use the wood of plum trees? Yes – plum tree wood is very similar to cherry wood. It is harder to work with, so it is often reserved for smaller projects
- Are Italian plums used the make the prunes I see at the grocery store? Probably not. Most prunes sold at American grocery stores are grown in California. The most common type of plum grown there is the Petit d’Agen and its descendants.
It is a shame Italian plums are not widely available in the United States; their shape and flavor profile sets them apart from the plums we commonly see in the supermarkets. To experience a small piece of German culture, plant your own tree so that you can have plenty of plum baking and plum people making!