Beach plums are stone fruits, related to other plums, cherries, and peaches. They are native shrubs common to coastal sand dunes from Maryland to southern Maine. Plants grow 4 to 10 feet tall and produce a profusion of white or pink flowers in mid-May, later than most other stone fruits.
The 1/2- to 1-inch diameter fruits ripen in late summer and are generally reddish to deep purple with a waxy bloom. They are quite acid with a crisp, tart, juicy flesh and a cherry-like pit and can be substituted for cherries or plums in recipes. Mostly wild-gathered fruits are used to make jams and jellies, which are often sold in resort areas along the coast.
Plants are often quite thorny and can be used as a low-growing hedge. Seaside plantings become gnarled and picturesque with age. The foliage is attractive, and the bark is dark and shiny.
Grow beach plums as you would other stone fruit. While found almost exclusively on sandy soils in the wild, beach plums will tolerate heavier soils if they have good drainage. They require full sun and are hardy in Zones 3 to 7. Beach plums are popular for erosion control and seaside plantings because they tolerate sandy soil and salt spray. Tent caterpillars and brown rot are occasionally troublesome, and birds especially enjoy these fruits.
Cultivars are not easy to come by. Autum has a spreading, low-growing habit and produces a large annual crop with good-size, high-quality fruit. Stearns is a good ornamental with fruit that processes well. Northneck and Squibnocket are recommended as ornamentals and soil binders.
Cornell researchers are working with growers to revitalize the once-vibrant beach plum industry. For more information, see www.beachplum. cornell.edu.
Other lesser-known Prunus species include:
Western sand cherries (Prunus besseyi)—small, spreading shrubs that grow up to 4 feet tall and are hardy in Zones 3 to 6. This cultivar bears 1/2-inch white flowers in late April or early May that ripen into 3/4-inch purple-black fruits in late summer. The fruit is astrigent but sweet and used in jellies or jams and in combination with apples in pies. Plants are native to the Great Plains and very tolerant of dry, sandy soils.
Nanking cherries (Prunus tomentosa)—an attractive, dense shrub from China that grows 6 to 10 feet tall and spreads to 15 feet. Also known as Manchu cherry, this species bears fragrant white flowers very early in the spring, which ripen into bright red fruit about half the size of a sour cherry. The fruits are covered with inconspicuous hairs and are juicy and slightly acid. Plants are very winter hardy and grow in Zones 2 to 7.
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