Beachcombers and shoreline foragers on the East Coast will know the anticipation of August in the dunelands. The beach plum peal of late summer sends us exploring hopefully, bags and baskets in hand. The small native plums are ripening in the lee of old dunes and may be ready to pick. Will this be a good year? The anticipation begins in mid-spring, when the gnarled and apparently lifeless shrubs growing in the sand foam into wakefulness, their gray branches crowded with white blossoms. They are beautiful, and the plums can be very good to eat. Increasingly Prunus maritima is available at native plant nurseries, and this hardy American fruit deserves to be better known and more widely grown.
Photos by Marie Viljoen
Beach plums’ native range extends from the Atlantic shoreline of Canada to Virginia. They grow in the company of beach grass and beach peas, bayberry, golden rod, eastern red cedar, and pitch pine, forming thickets in maritime woodlands. Further inland they may occur on sandy coastal barrens. Beach plums are exceptionally cold-hardy, growing in USDA zones 3 – 8.
Their ability to thrive in sand means that beach plums are a good choice for stabilizing and re-vegetating dunes that have been disrupted: their sprawling, wind-blown habit in this environment allows their lower, horizontal branches to be buried in shifting sand, and to establish roots, creating colonies. Their saline tolerance suits them to landscaping where road salt may affect soil quality.
Their adaptation to beach life means that beach plums are resilient, making them suitable for demanding artificial situations like rooftop gardens, where a combination of baking sun, wind, and containers creates a challenging environment.
Cultivated beach plums planted in richer soil grow much larger than their wild relatives, becoming small trees rather than wind-sculpted shrubs. For optimal fruit production they should always be planted in full sun (a minimum of six hours of direct sunlight). East, south and west-facing exposures are ideal.
The flavor of beach plums tends to vary. If you are out foraging for them, taste a couple from a shrub before filling your bag with insipid fruit. If you have a sweet or a tart one (both desirable beach plum traits), pounce, and leave some behind for other creatures.
As demand for native plants grows, different varieties of beach plum may become more readily available for gardeners and farmers. Most shrubs sold at nurseries are from seed-grown stock.
While jam is predictably delicious, there are many other ways to use these native plums. Unripe beach plums can be turned into a native—and mini—version of umeboshi, the Japanese pickle made from unripe ume (Prunus mume). That lacto-fermentation process creates a tartly refreshing brine, too. Green beach plums can also be covered with their weight in sugar, to extract a beach plum “juice”—really a syrup—in the same way that ume are used, or to make a plum version of umeshu, the infused liquor.
One of the best ways to use and to preserve beach plums is to make a purée. It is a delectable cake filling, ice-cream base, savory pie relish, and stuffing—with chanterelles—for a summer porchetta.
Cook the fruit in a pot over medium heat with a splash of water added. Cover. As the plums heat they burst and cook in their own juices. When they are soft, work the fruit through a food mill (an essential tool). Return the pulp to the pot and taste it. Add enough sugar to create your own palate’s perfect balance of sweet and sour. Warm through briefly to dissolve the sugar then cool, and freeze the rich purée in quarter or half-cup batches.
Poaching beach plums gently in red wine or vermouth with bay creates an aromatic conserve to accompany fatty meats like pork or duck rillettes, or to add to a vivid cheese board.
A regional North American answer to European sloe gin is, of course, beach plum gin. I make it in two ways. The first is a Pits-and-Pulp gin infused with the pulpy pits leftover from working a batch of cooked beach plums through a food mill. It is relatively austere, with plummy undertones.
Cooking beach plums with red wine and their shoreline neighbor bayberry (Morella pensylvanica) adds a deeper, dune-ier note to a richer and redder gin.
Beach Plum Gin with Bayberry
Adapted from Forage, Harvest, Feast – A Wild-Inspired Cuisine
I use an uncomplicated, inexpensive juniper-forward gin like Gordon’s. (It doesn’t hurt that our native juniper (Juniperus virginiana) always grows near beach plums.)
- 1 lb beach plums, stems removed
- 1 cup red wine
- ¼ cup sugar
- 40 fresh bayberry leaves (or 10 fresh bay leaves)
- 3 cups gin
Place the beach plums in a saucepan with the red wine, the sugar and the bayberry leaves. Heat gently over medium heat until the liquid begins to boil. Turn off the heat and allow the fruit to cool. Place the plums and their cooking liquid in a jar and pour in the gin. Cover. Allow to macerate for 1 week. Strain though a fine mesh sieve and again through double cheese cloth, before bottling in a clean bottle.
(The leftover, soaked fruit can be worked through a food mill to extract the pits before being: Cooked into jam, made into chutney, spread onto sandwiches, or churned into ice cream. It freezes very well, too.)
For more ideas for delicious fruits to grow, see:
- Aronia: Grow Your Own Superfood
- Pawpaw: A Native Fruit that Tastes Like the Tropics
- Garden to Bar: A Summer Cocktail Starring Homemade Elderberry Syrup