Several weeks ago, I waded across the Creek and picked twelve pounds of wild plums. That’s not so easy to do this week because the channel is back to running full after the latest “rain bomb”. Most of the major plum thickets are located on the north side of the Creek and location, as we all know, is everything.
Location within the thicket controls the plum crop. The best clusters of ripe fruit seem to be on the south sides of the thicket. That’s where the blossoms were less impacted by strong north winds this past spring. And, those are the places where fruit can ripen in the full exposure to the sun now this fall. It also seems like the smaller trees at the edges of a dense, mature thicket have the best fruit. At least that’s where the ripe plums are easiest to pick. Access is an important part of location.
Picking is tricky. The ripest fruit is on the end of small, springy branches, so you can pull those branches down to get the plums within reach. But if you inadvertently let go of the branch, it bounces back and shakes off all of the unpicked ripe fruit. Those problems don’t exist for the inaccessible plums at the top of the larger, older trees.
One clue to finding a concentration of ripe plums is smell. The fruit that has naturally fallen off the trees has a distinctive good fragrance that warns you to stop looking at the ground and start looking up in the branches. Commonly, wild plums hang in pairs; one big and one small. Both the big and little plums have a thin layer of yellow flesh between the bitter outer skin and the large pit that dominates the center. If you happen to be eating as you pick, that yellow flesh is sweet and warm from the sun. However, usually you end up spitting out both the bitter skin and the big central pit.
Wild plums have thorns. Ripe fruit that falls may get impaled on a thorn. And, the plum picker may get scratched. Those thorns are there for protection, after all.
Picking wild plums is a trip back in time. One Native American nation called September the “moon of ripe plums”. Their linguistic descendants probably still do. My grandfather, who was the son of the homesteaders, had his own technique for picking plums. A canvas tarp was stretched over a wagon box and the team of horses pulled it into the thicket. Then he shook the trees and the falling ripe fruit collected on the tarp. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, people from town would come out to go “pluming”. It was quite a social event and was also a real contrast to my solitary communion with Nature as I pick.
For the children of the Depression, the plum harvest was a balance between waste and greed. They felt a deep obligation to make good use of the bounty, but it was also a big job to pick and preserve. I once offered an elderly aunt a bag of plums, but she refused forcefully. She knew that she had a responsibility to do the preserves if she accepted the gift.
One of my great-great grandmas had a unique recipe for plum jam that I really like. However, Margaret doesn’t care for that jam because it has anise in it. She also likes a clear jelly better than the lumpy jam. We’ll probably be making jelly with this batch of wild plums because the prime cook’s preference is paramount.