Widely adapted, reliably prolific, more compact, and less demanding than most fruit trees, plums are a natural choice for the home grower. Plums are delicious cooked in jams, jellies, butters, sauces; baked in pies and coffee cakes; dried as prunes; or - best of all - eaten juicy fresh right off the tree. For the home gardener, plums offer an additional bonus: the trees add a beautiful, graceful touch to any home landscape. Which variety of plum tree to plant depends partly on your location. Hardy European plums are the most widely planted plum across the United States. The more delicate Japanese plums thrive where peach trees thrive. Where neither European nor Japanese plums will flourish, American hybrids will survive. Combining the hardiness of the native American trees with the flavor and size of the Japanese plums, American hybrids will often survive even under the harsh winter conditions of the northern plains and Canada.
Japanese plums actually originated in China but were brought to this country via Japan in the 1800s. They are not quite as sweet as European plums, though their flesh is much juicier. Two varieties that are excellent for fresh eating and canning are 'Satsuma', a large, dark red, sweet plum, and 'Santa Rosa', a large plum with crimson skin and purple flesh that turns yellow near the skin.
European plums will grow where it's neither too cold nor too hot. The fruits are high quality and very uniform. 'Stanley' is a versatile European plum that is widely adapted and particularly well suited to the eastern regions and some of the Northwest. It's self-fertile and very productive. A medium to large freestone plum, 'Stanley' is excellent for eating fresh, cooking, or canning. Italian plums are similar to 'Stanley'. These large, freestone purple plums are very sweet, perfect for drying, eating fresh, or canning. 'Seneca' is a high-quality European plum that looks promising for the home gardener. It matures about one week before 'Stanley'. The fruit is large, oblong, and purple, with good flavor for eating fresh.
If you live in a place where neither Japanese nor European plums will grow because of the climate or disease problems, American plums or bush plums may be your best bet. Though very winter hardy, American bush plums will produce well as far south as Florida. Fruits are 3/4 inch in diameter or larger, yellow or red, with a flat stone. There's also the hardy beach plum, or shore plum, which is found along the eastern shore from Maine to Delaware. The fruit is delicious in preserves. The plants are available commercially and can be pruned to a shrub shape or small tree. Beach plums are very hardy and enjoy poor, sandy soils.
Which Plum to Grow?
American hybrid trees are a good choice for regional extremes. Combining the virtues of both breeds, the fruits are as tasty as the Japanese plums and as hardy as our native plum species. Climate plays a large role in determining which plum variety to plant. European plum trees are adapted to conditions throughout most of the United States. They are generally more tolerant of the cold than Japanese varieties. On the other hand, Japanese plums are better able to tolerate summer heat. They bloom earlier than European plums, so they are more vulnerable to late frost damage. Generally, Japanese plums don't set fruit well in regions with cold, damp springs. American hybrids look very promising in the Southeast where there are many disease problems. Also, some native hybrids do well in the northern Midwest, where you can't grow any other plums because of freeze damage. These hybrids are often able to survive on the northern plains because of the unbroken, persistent cold, although they may not fare as well in other northern regions where warm spells frequently interrupt winter conditions. The European plum is generally easier to grow than the Japanese because Japanese plum trees need more pruning and more fruit thinning. They generally spoil faster than European plums after harvest. Europeans tend to stay on the tree longer, and they last longer after they are picked. European plums also offer more leeway in cross -pollination planning. They are more often self-fertile; one variety, or even one tree, can be planted alone and still bear fruit. Some varieties such as 'President' require cross-pollination. (European plums classified as self-fertile may produce better crops when cross-pollination is provided.) Japanese plums almost always require the presence of another Japanese, Japanese/ American hybrid, or American plum variety nearby in order to set fruit. European and Japanese will not cross-pollinate, as their pollen is incompatible.