Plums: Pacific Northwest Edition

        Plums are classified as a drupe, which is defined by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) as  “a fleshy fruit with thin skin that usually contains a single seed, including cherries, peaches, and olives.  A drupe comes from a single ovary of an individual flower.”    

        Buying this fruit in a grocery store, chances are it came from California, which produces 97% of the plums purchased in the United States, according to Washington State University (WSU).  Our state comes in second, while being third in the nation for fruit bearing acres (after California and Florida, respectively, estimated by the USDA’s Economic Research Service).  

        Belonging to the rose family, plums are the most diverse stone fruit: there are over 2,000 known varieties.  The common plum or European plum, Prunus domestica, originated in Turkey.  Prunus salicina, also known as a Chinese plum or Japanese plum, bloom and bear fruit earlier than European varieties.  

        As we approach the height of summer harvest, Seattle neighborhoods produce an abundance of plums.  The varieties are vast, with cultivars from Asia and Europe.   The Seattle Times interviewed City Fruit’s executive director Annie Nguyen in 2021 about Seattle’s amazing bounty of Italian plums, with an accompanying recipe from The New York Times for Purple Plum Torte: their most requested recipe! 

U.S. Department of Agriculture Pomological Watercolor Collection. Rare and Special Collections, National Agricultural Library, Beltsville, MD 20705

        The Italian plum has obscure origins, with no precise data or history on how it came to be so prolific around Puget Sound.  The Seattle Times vaguely refers to early 20th century Italian  immigrants, which the varietal name also indicates, but nothing more definite.  Whatever the case, Italian plums are cultivated, and require intentional planting.  

        Unintentional plums are wild plums, a rare find in North America, and subspecies of P. domestica.  You may have heard of P. spinosa or sloe, a plum commonly used in combination with gin to create a red liqueur.  This plum exclusively grows undomesticated on the European continent, but has been introduced to other continents.  P. insititia is another such wild variety, spanning from the Himalayas to North Africa, and throughout the majority of Europe.  These are the antecedents of mirabelle and damson plums, most notably those cultivated in France and the United Kingdom respectively. 

        The United Kingdom, and England in particular, has an interesting clarification between P. domestica: gages and plums.  The distinction is purely based on taste: gages are thought to be superior in flavor, and therefore have been historically reserved for dessert.  In France, this plum is called “Claude,” after a 16th century monarch.  Early in the 18th century, Sir William Gage introduced the plum to England, and thus became the eponym of this superb plum.  You might find these lovelies at PCC Community Markets in the next month.  According to the produce lead at the Greenlake Village location, there’s no estimated time of arrival for different plums, but on the fruit trees here in Seattle, you’ve probably already seen red cherry plums, yellow Japanese plums, and greengages already ripe. We’re expecting Italian plums and Damsons to fill the rest of August!

        The entire species breeds uniqueness, as “the Prunus family is so wantonly profligate, dallying with any sibling, cousin, and even offspring that chances by,” which local grocers showcase every summer with a colorful multitude of hybrids.  Probably most are familiar with a plumcot, which is half plum and half apricot.  Maybe you’ve also heard of a pluot: roughly 75% plum and 25% apricot, with plum dominating in flavor and texture.  Or an aprium?  As the name suggests, this one is more apricot than plum.    Popular varieties include Dapple Dandy and Flavor King, both pluots and readily available in most produce sections.  

City Fruit has gleaned numerous subspecies this summer, which are hard to identify without talking directly to the person who planted the tree.  Trees often pass ownership without acknowledgement of species, probably because there are a lot of details involved in transferring property, and remembering to talk about the plum tree in the backyard doesn’t top everyone’s list.  If you’re trying to identify what plums are in your own backyard or were gifted by a neighbor, a good reference is Organically Grown Co.  Also, purchasing a sampler of Prunus from your local grocery and comparing them to what you have at home might lead to an interesting discovery!

        Our freezers here at City Fruit are filled with a variety of plums from generous tree owners.  These plums may have torn skin or been overripe when we harvested them, and therefore are not acceptable for food banks, but still utterly delicious.  We freeze the fruit in order to later divert the bounty into jams, sauces, and baked goods.  Tuesday, August 22nd, City Fruit will be holding a Pint Night bake sale from 5:30 to 8:30 PM at Reuben’s Brewery in Ballard. Come support us by raising a pint and consider donating for a jar of jam or diverted dessert confection. If you have any interest in participating as a baker, we have ingredients for pick up at our Aurora Ave N office!  Bakers would need to drop off the finished product no later than Monday, September 21st.  Marian Burros Plum Torte can be your inspiration!