Monday, August 5, 2013

Cherry Plum- an early plum gone wild

Cherry Plum
Cherry Plums just beginning to ripen
As a child growing up in western Washington, plums were always a joy of late summer. A scraggly Italian Prune Plum grew beside the tree house in our yard and I would hang out the windows or crawl across the roof to reach the fruit. I usually devoured them on the spot in two bites: the first exposing the free stone which I removed and tossed at some target below, followed quickly by the second bite. A dozen plums later, my voracity would slacken, and after yet another dozen, I was ready for non-culinary plum amusements. By the time I was eight, my neighborhood friend Ryan and I had developed a lengthy repertoire…. Plum grenade wars were most banal and don’t require explanation. Slightly more advanced were plum shakes (which definitely were not edible), involving particularly rotten specimens concealed in the palm of a hand that was deceitfully extended to an unsuspecting sibling or friend (no eight year-old handshake should ever be trusted!). On the expert end of the spectrum was “stomp-shooting.” A rotten plum was placed on the ground and jumped on in an effort to get the pit to shoot out. Stomp-shooting works best on a paved surface and on one occasion, our imaginations got the better of us. Ryan and I lined plums up across the road with the hope that a car would run over the plums and spray seeds like a semi-automatic stomp-shooting machine. As luck would have it, Ryan’s dad was the next car to come down the road and our play time quickly ended.

Rather than share recipes for disaster, the main purpose of this article is to share a new (to me) species of plum called Myrobalan or Cherry Plum (Prunus cerasifera).

A good crop of Cherry Plums

Sharp spines armor this trunk
Purple leaved "Thundercloud"
Cherry plum is a small tree that grows to 50 feet tall. The trunk and limbs are sometimes armed with sharp tipped stubby branches. Leaves are 2–3 inches long, elliptic, with finely serrated margins and (usually) hairy midribs on the underside. Unlike many cherries and plums, the petioles of Cherry Plum do not have glands. Flowers are white, 1 inch across, and borne singly or in pairs in leaf axils of second year growth or on short spur branches. Plums are 1 inch wide, spherical, and range in color from yellow to dark red, or purple. Pits are 9/16 of an inch long by 7/16 of an inch wide, laterally compressed with rounded edges. Introduced from Eurasia, cherry plum has escaped cultivation in western and southeastern Washington, and western and northeastern Oregon. It is commonly used as root-stalk for other plums, and occasionally pruned heavily to make hedges. There are also a few cultivated varieties that are planted for their novel reddish purple leaves (such as “Thundercloud”). Cherry Plum can be difficult to distinguish from European Plum (P. domestica) but European Plums have flowers and fruit that are in clusters of 3 or more and leaves that are wider and more coarsely serrated than Cherry Plum.
Cherry Plum leaf, fruit, pulp and seed

Aptly named, Cherry Plums resemble Sweet Cherries (Prunus avium) in size, shape, and color. While most other plums ripen in the late summer, Cherry Plums are ready to harvest in late July and early August, 2-3 weeks after sweet cherries, but 3-5 weeks before other plums.
Cherry Plums have more variation in taste than cultivated plums but the three varieties and six trees that I have sampled so far, have all been good. The flesh is sweet, juicy but not drippy, and soft with a very plummy flavor, although it tends to be more sour near the pit. The skin is moderately sour and easily spit out. Unlike many cultivated varieties of European Plum (Prunus domestica) such as the Italian Plum, the stones are not free.

Cherry Plums make the perfect urban snack at this time of the year.

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