Learn about the best tasting and easiest to grow plums.
ILLUSTRATION: JOHN BURGOYNE
John Bunker tell readers about the best tasting and easiest to grow plums.
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John Bunker sells fruit trees through FEDCO, a mail-order nursery cooperative in Waterville, Maine. One of his specialties is plums: He's grown more than 30 varieties on his farm in Palermo, Maine.
John encourages potential plum growers to do their homework and find out which varieties best suit their tastebuds and climates. Cultivated plums in the United States generally fall into three categories, he says. "Each has its special qualities and quirks."
European-type plums include the prunes and damsons: "Italian" and "Stanley" are two of the most famous. They are usually self-pollinating, so you can get by with one tree in the yard.
European-type plums are upright and can grow to be quite tall. Prune them to a central leader (in a pyrarnidal shape). For a shorter specimen, keep the leader cut back. Most varieties are hardy to USDA Zone 5, some to Zone 4. They are susceptible to black knot, a black bubble-gum-like fungus that wraps itself around branches and can kill a tree. In case of black knot, remove and bum infected branches. Get rid of any infected wild cherries in the vicinity.
Asian-American hybrids began as one of the major projects of Niels Hanson, the great, upper-Midwest plant breeder of 100 years ago. Many of the plum names reflect the heritage of the Great Plains: for example, "Waneta," after a Yanktonai Sioux leader.
Hybrid plums combine the taste and size of the Japanese and other Asian varieties with the extreme hardiness of the American plums.
"They were invented for the cold prairies," John says. "But they're an excellent choice for anyone up north."
Hybrids are fairly short and widespreading: No need to pay extra for a dwarf tree, he says. They do require cross-pollination. Plant at least two different varieties—better yet, three or four, so the branches intertwine. Bunker recommends setting them 4 to 6 feet apart.
Japanese types are mostly descended from the plums introduced by Luther Burbank in Santa Rosa, California. In fact, the most famous Japanese plums are "Burbank" and "Santa Rosa." like the hybrids, these trees are relatively low and wide-spreading, with large, roundish fruit with skin color that varies from yellow to black and several shades in between. Japanese plums require a second variety for pollination and are generally hardy to Zone 5.
"I wish I could grow them in Maine," John says, with a laugh. "They don't get black knot."
Go to this story's image gallery to see a chart of the best-tasting and easiest to grow plums.