While the fruit from the Japanese plum tree dominates the produce aisles in most of the United States, Mexican plum trees are a native variant from the mid-southern part of the country that are decorative, low-maintenance trees that compliment any yard and have the added benefit of producing edible plums.
History of Mexican plums
Prunus mexicana, commonly known as the Mexican plum tree, is a small fruit tree that is part of the rose family and is native to northern Mexico and the south, central United states. It particularly thrives in Texas. Isolated native range strands have been found as far north as southern Minnesota and as far east as Georgia.
The Mexican plum tree is among the native, non-hybridized plum tree variants referred to as Wild Plums. These Wild Plums were cultivated by indigenous North American people, and do best in full sun to dappled shade. In the wild, they are often found along river bottoms.
Prunus mexicana was named by Sereno Watson, who likely identified it during an 1867 expedition of the 40th parallel in the western half of the United States.
Landscaping Benefits of Mexican Plum Trees
Prunus Mexicana is worth consideration for gardeners planing in hardiness zones 6-8. The tree produces fragrant flowers that are about an inch wide. The white flowers will be among the first blooms of early spring to brighten both commercial and residential landscapes. In central Texas, the blooms are a sign of hope that winter is ending and spring is on the way.
The tree’s beauty is not limited to spring. The Mexican plum is deciduous, and you can expect a fall show before the tree drops its leaves for winter, but given how early it flowers, the tree will not be bare for long.
Mexican plum trees are also popular ornamental trees because of their unique bark. It is dark gray with horizontal lenticels, meaning it has a ridged appearance similar to birch bark. As the tree ages, the bark will shift large, flat sheets reminiscent of parchment.
This is a single-root, single-trunk tree rather than a colony and should not produce suckers. The root system generally stays within the boundary of the canopy and sinks down about five feet, making it less likely to disrupt sidewalks and foundations in its lifetime.
Mexican plum trees are attractive to bees and birds, so consider planting the tree near other plants needing pollinators, like pumpkins.
The trees grow best in zones 6 through 8, are tolerant of many soil types, and are also drought-tolerant once established. Prunus mexicana is widely available at nurseries and garden centers in Texas and even Oklahoma. Gardeners outside of these areas may need to turn to online nurseries or request a special order from a local shop.
Expect trees to reach 20 to 30 feet tall with a canopy spread of 25 feet. These trees are often touted as low-maintenance, but like all fruit trees, the longevity and fruit production of the tree will be improved with a bit of pampering upon planting.
Young trees will benefit from moist, well-drained, rich soil. Once mature, they require low amounts of water. Mature trees do well with full sun to partial shade, but newly planted trees will adapt better with afternoon shade while they get established. In the wild, Mexican plums will grow in a variety of soil types, but home gardeners can protect their investment by giving it the best possible start.
Expect these trees to be slow growing, likely 12 inches or less per year. They are pest resistant but are very attractive to deer. Plan to protect new trees to optimize growth.
To minimize yardwork, plant these trees set back from sidewalks and patios and in areas where the fruit debris is tolerable. The small, one-inch fruit is challenging to pick up, much like a crabapple. The tree can be expected to live as little as 15 years, which can present additional landscaping challenges.
Tree planting is one of the most laborious tasks a home gardener can take on, but the effort up front will give your investment its best chance of thriving. A healthy tree will provide beauty and satisfaction for years to come. An improperly planted tree runs an increased risk of not doing well, leading you to dig it up and start over in just a few seasons.
Plant your new tree in the fall while the soil is still workable to give it the best chance. This will give it time to establish roots before exposing it to the shock of hot summer heat and dryness.
Dig a hole the depth of the root ball and at least few inches larger in circumferance. When setting the root ball in a large hole, you are giving the new tree a better chance to let its roots spread and grow more quickly. This better prepares it to withstand the taxing summer heat and dryness.
Always call your local utilities before digging if you are unsure of the location of power, gas, water, sewer, or cable lines in your yard. Consider the tree’s likely growth and how it may impact any of these lines. A tree planted in haste can cause extremely painful excavation and repair bills when it damages a water or other utility line.
A new fruit tree will benefit from a good dose of water when planted; be sure to water the surrounding soil and the root ball itself as you settle it into place.
Mexican plums are valued for being able to survive in any soil, but plum trees most love loamy soil, so a soil amendment can get your tree off to its best possible start. Compost, cow manure, and peat moss are all good soil amendments for plum trees.
Don’t forget to consider the surroundings when placing a tree to ensure that the mature tree will not crowd or damage existing structures or cause you even more work by clogging eaves.
For landscaping, container-grown trees will best suit most gardeners’ patience. However, these trees can be grown from seeds or cuttings.
When growing from seed, first stratify seeds in moist sand up to 60 days and then cold stratify the seeds for 60-90 days. The cold stratify should occur at above freezing but below 41 degrees Fahrenheit.
Mexican plum trees are often used as a base cutting for the propagation of other trees.
Harvest and Taste
Mexican plums drop from their trees mid-to-late summer through fall, depending on location, and the best fruit will be a dark-red purple shade with a wax bloom. The wax bloom is the white, dusty layer on plums and other produce that is a natural barrier and a good indicator of freshness. You can expect to see the fruit work its way through a range of colors from orange to that dark purple before falling.
Mexican plums appeal to birds and other wildlife, so hopeful plum-pickers should keep a watchful eye on the trees and pick as soon as the fruit ripens.
Mexican plums are often overlooked due to their small size, so they are an easy introduction to urban and rural foraging in areas with plentiful trees, particularly in Texas. If you are hoping to reduce your grocery bill by finding wild trees, you’ll have the most luck finding them along woodland edges and in the open or along river or creek banks and in river bottoms.
The taste of the fruit is inconsistent, ranging from a traditional, sweet plum taste expected from grocery store plums, or other small cherry plums, to a bitter, unpleasant fruit. The color may not be an accurate indicator, and some trees will produce more bitter fruits than others. The pit and leaves should not be consumed.
If your tree yields more plums than you can manage before they go bad, Mexican plums are a good candidate for freezing. You can dry freeze the plums or pack them in syrup to save them for a later time.
Mexican plums are packed with the vitamins that you would expected from widely available plums; they contain Vitamin A, Vitamin C, Vitamin K, potassium, and beta carotene. They are also high in antioxidants, and besides being a tasty treat, offer a range of health benefits.
Recipes and Preparation
Given their small size, the most practical options for consuming Mexican plums will be to eat them raw or to make them into chutney, jelly, jam, or preserves. Prior to making the first batch, be sure to sample several fruits from each tree to determine where that tree’s yield falls in the range from bitter and inedible to sweet and delicious.
Consuming them whole will give you an experience much like that of eating a pitted cherry, but the flavor is unlikely to be as pleasant.
The small size of Mexican plums will make pitting arduous. Wash the fruit and place the whole plums in a large, heavy-bottom pot like a Dutch oven. Then, depending on whether you want to make jam, jelly, or preserves, follow the steps below:
Add three cups of water to two pounds of Mexican plums and boil for 10 minutes. Without discarding the water in the pot, remove the plums and press them through a sieve to separate the pits. Return the pulp and as much skin as desired to the pot of water. Add 2-3 cups of sugar to taste, depending on the natural sweetness of your plums. Stir, then bring to a boil. Simmer the mixture for 30 minutes, and then store in the refrigerator for 4-6 weeks. Simmer for additional time if you want the jam to have a thicker consistency.
Simmer five pounds of Mexican plums with 4 cups of water for 30 minutes. Line a strainer with four layers of cheesecloth, and put the plum mixture in the strainer for about 30 minutes, or until there are 5 ½ cups of liquid. Return the liquid to the pot and add 1 ¾ oz of pectin and 7 ½ cups of sugar. Bring to a roiling boil for one minute, stirring constantly. Portion the mixture in jars and follow the canning process.
These are just a few options. For a savory take on Mexican plums, try a chutney, which is a thick, savory topping that elevates meat and is at home on a charcuterie. The size and flavor profile of Mexican plums make them an easy substitute in crabapple recipes. Best of all, you can be proud that your ornamental tree is also practical and gives you a fruit not available in stores.