Red plums and red plum trees are actually canopy terms that encompass many specific plum cultivars.
We on this site talk about all the fantastic and exotic types of plums out there, so it can be baffling to go to grocery store after grocery store and see exactly two types: red and black. How is it possible to read about plums like the Methley and Bruce but only find something as tame as a red plum? Believe it or not, you are might just be buying a Methley or Bruce plum as they are popular red plum varieties.
It is also a description that can have a couple of meanings. Read on to learn about those red plums you see in stores and what you are actually buying.
What Are Red Plums
The term ‘red plum’ is used in two primary ways. First, it can be used to describe the two native North American plums. They are the Prunus americana and the Prunus nigra. The Prunus americana is more commonly known as the American plum, Marshall’s sweet yellow plum, or the wild plum. The Prunus nigra is more commonly known as the Canada plum or the red plum. Together, these types of plums are often called wild plums.
Second, the term ‘red plum’ describes any plum cultivar that has a red-toned skin and yellow-ish flesh. The Methley, Bruce, and Burbank all meet this description. You will also find them labeled as red plums in stores. Most varieties belong to a group of Japanese plums, Prunus salycina.
Regardless of the use of the term, red plum encompasses a selection of plums with overlapping physical characteristics. Know though that when you purchase something called a red plum, you are most likely purchasing a Methley plum or other Japanese red plum.
History of Red Plums
The history of the red plum varies wildly based on whether it is a Japanese plum or one of the plums native to North American. Both have been known to humans for at least 1,000 years.
How Do Red Plums Taste
A tart flavor or sour tinge characterizes most red plums. The wild plums of North America are a rangier, tougher fruit. They are also smaller and less ideal for fresh eating. As you might imagine, these characteristics do not make for a widely grown grocery store fruit.
Thee Methley plum, however, is a red plum known for a mild flavor. They really represent the plum flavor most of us think of thanks to their mild flavor and wide growing range. The so-called red plums in the grocery store can easily be other types of Japanese plums or hybrid plums though. Unfortunately, there is no good way for the consumer to know what they are buying before they bite into the fruit.
How to Use Red Plums
Red plums hold their own with both fresh eating, canning, and cooking. The more mild Methleys plums generally make for better fresh eating than the wild plums because they are not as tart. However, most red plums do get sweeter as they ripen. If fresh eating is on your mind, stay away from the firmest red plums.
Red plums bring a bit of zing to cut the sweetness in baked goods. Try them in an eggless plum cake or in a gooey plum crisp. They also make great jellies and jams because they add some depth to an otherwise sweet dish. For more red plum ideas, take a look at 21 Plum Recipes to Try at Home.
The wild red plums can be very hit or miss in terms of flavor. When using them in baking, I strongly recommend taste-testing each batch (as if we need an excuse!). Even within one tree, you may notice a taste variation, so keep sampling.
Where to Buy Red Plums and Red Plum Trees
If your grocery store has any plums, they are likely red plums. They are one of the most widely available plums in the United States.
You can also grow your own red plum trees at home. Because red plum trees can be so many different types of trees, you have a fantastic chance finding one near you.
If you are new to fruit tree growing, the Methley plum is one red plum perfect for beginners. Methley plums are very popular trees because they are so accessible, and they have a wide growing range, meaning there is a strong chance you can pick one up at your local nursery.
If you find that your local, in-person options are limited, you may have more success online. The variety is very popular because it can be grown in most of the country.
Our preferred online nursery is Nature Hills Nursery. They offer 1 to 3 foot trees that can produce fruit the first growing season.
For the best selection of trees, always plan to make online purchases well before you want to plant. For spring planting, you will need to purchase in late winter, if not the previous fall.
For those of us who like to plant in the fall, it can be challenging to find the most popular trees, like the Methley, for a summer or fall purchase.
How to Grow Red Plum Trees
Japanese red plum trees bloom white flowers in early spring, as early as February and March, and its plums will be ready to harvest in May to July, depending on the weather and climate.
Wild red plum trees both bloom later and yield fruit later in the season.
Both wild red plums and Japanese red plums are among the easiest trees to grow. Among plum trees, they both bear fruit earlier in the tree’s life cycle than other types of plums.
Red Plum Tree Characteristics
Red plum trees come in all shapes and sizes. For all the consistency regarding appearance that the fruit holds, the trees themselves have enough variety to fit any yard or commercial space.
Your Methley plum tree will have a rather fast growth rate and should be mature in 3 years. Growers can have the best of both worlds of cost savings by purchasing a bare root tree but still enjoy a well-developed tree in just a few years.
This type of consistency and convenience can be hard to find in the world of fruit trees.
The recommended USDA growing zones vary based on the specific red plum tree. The Methley plum tree and Prunus nigra are recommended for USDA zones 4 through 9 and are cold hardy down to -15 degrees Fahrenheit. Prunus americana grows in zones 3 through 8, but actually has the best cold hardiness of plums and can survive down to -50 degrees when fully dormant! The wild plum certainly demonstrates the value in choosing native species
Red Plum Tree Size and Spacing
I address Methley plums in this article specifically because they are so popular. One of the many reasons that it is such a popular fruit tree is that it has a really convenient shape and size for both private homes and commercial applications. They naturally only reach about 12 feet in height, but with minor pruning can easily be kept under 10 feet. It has an upright shape and a spreading canopy, so it produces an aesthetically pleasing shape for yards and can fit in even a small space.
The North American plums naturally reach a higher height of 15 to 25 feet, and the canopy is correspondingly larger. If you have space for this and want a large shade tree, this could be a good fit. The wild trees are less tolerant of drought than the Japanese red plum tres.
The great thing about modern tree growing is that larger trees are often grown on the rootstock of smaller trees, like peach and cherry trees. This means that you can get the fruit of a larger plum tree on a much shorter and more compact tree.
When spacing your trees, be sure to situate them far enough apart to allow them to grow to their intended size. Planting to allow for growth is ultimately easier than aggressively pruning every year.
Japanese plums, including Methley plums are considered self-fertile, but the tree will bear more plentiful yields when within 50 feet of another plum tree. Remember, Japanese plums and European plums do not pollinate each other because the two types have a different number of chromosomes. The Methley is a Japanese plum, so you cannot rely on any nearby European plums for assistance
Japanese plums can be cross-pollinated with American plums. American or wild plums are self-fruitful.
If you are looking for a more familiar plum to compare the Japanese red plum to before committing to a tree, you can think of it as something of a mix between an Italian plum and a Chickasaw plum. It looks similar to the Chickasaw plum in that it is a smaller, lighter colored plum, but its juicy sweet flavor has more in common with an Italian plum.
Excited for more plum content? Then check out our plum trees page for the latest growing tips, care guides, recipes, and more!