Plum Delicious and Native, Too!

The tart edible fruits of Prunus angustifolia and Prunus umbellata are ripe and ready for wild foraging. P. angustifolia, commonly called “Chickasaw” plum after the native people that favored their use (Austin), and P. umbellata, known as “flatwoods plum” are members of the Rosaceae family. Most people are familiar with the spring bloom of white flowers that form before the leaves, offering one of the earliest floral displays after the winter frosts in north Florida.

The prolific trees and shrubs of the Prunus genus were widely used by native people for everything from medicines and food to wood products and ceremonial objects. More than 400 species can be found throughout the United States, Europe, and China; there are two native species in Africa. The genus includes plums, cherries, peaches, apricots, and almonds. The Prunus species native to north central Florida grow in woodlands, flatwoods, along roadsides and fence rows, and in open pine areas.

Both species are small deciduous trees (8 to 20 feet) and enjoy partial shade, but will tolerate full sun.  P. angustifolia produces ground runners and forms thickets.

oblong leaf
lanceolate leaf
  The lanceolate to oblong or oval leaves vary from 1½ to 3 inches long, ¼ to ¾ inches wide, and may be slightly curved upward.

elliptical leaf

P. augustifolia berries
The fruits are less than ¾ of an inch, reddish-yellow, and form in the early summer. P. umbellata is less likely to form thickets; has elliptic, oval or oblong leaves that are 1 to 2 inches long and ½ to ¾ inches wide. P. umbellata mature to a dark purple or red, which is specific to a coastal dune variety (Kurz and Godfrey).

P. angustifolia and P. umbellata are difficult to distinguish, even by the experts. Confounding identification is the fact that these sister trees hybridize readily. Both are apt to have thorny branches. Kurz and Godfrey offer this advice for differentiating the trees: look for glandular leaf tips on new leaves that form on lower branches when the plant flowers. These red or yellow tips are indicative of a Chickasaw plum.

Most wild foragers agree that the fruits of P. angustifolia are sweeter than those of P. umbellata. But both are initially tart followed by a slightly sweet flavor—so don’t be in a hurry to spit one out if you venture a taste. Although taste buds vary, try to get through the bitter bit before forming an opinion. Be sure to sample the fruit at several stages of ripeness to determine the optimal time for picking. The fruits are high in beta carotene and potassium and contain vitamin C and B-complex as well as phosphorous, calcium, iron, and magnesium.

You can make Chickasaw plum jellly
Jams are the most common modern preparation of the berries, but copious amounts of sugar can negate the refreshing tartness. Use your favorite plum jelly recipe. {Editor's note: here is a excellent explanation of the jelly making process, along with recipes:}  The berries also can be carefully pressed or squeezed and made into a sour and rather astringent juice. Be careful not to nick the pits, which are high in a form of cyanide (called “prunasin”) that is converted to hydrocyanic acid when it comes in contact with water or digestive juices. See caution notes. Making juice is rather labor intensive as the fruits are small and the pits are large in comparison!

However, native people used the berries of various Prunus species as food. The berries of
P. angustifolia were mashed, seeds and all, made into small cakes that were left sitting out for several days to dry, and then baked. This “fermentation” process purportedly allowed the break down of the potent glycosides (amygdalin) and also reduced bitter tannins. There is some ethnobotanical evidence that mashing, cooking, or exposing the seeds to sunlight destroys the toxic effects. But be safe and avoid eating the pits! (Austin, Peterson). Herbal preparations from Prunus species are contraindicated during pregnancy because of tetragenic cyanogenic glycosides (Holmes).

Chickasaw plum available at The Natives in Davenport   

 Landscape Tips: P. angustifolia and P. umbellata are native many parts of the United States including Florida. These trees are easily maintained and some people consider them “weedy.” As mentioned, both can form thickets, which is helpful for soil stabilization.

Zebra swallowtail on Chickasaw plum, photo by Will Stuart

They make wonderful additions to any Florida landscape, providing exquisite color in the late winter and one of the first nectar sources for early spring butterflies. The beautiful blooming is followed by abundant fruit in early to mid-summer. Birds love the thickets formed by P. angustifolia and cardinals readily appropriate them for nesting. If you set a bird feeder nearby birds will often nab their seeds and fly back to the tree to consume them under the camouflage. Both trees are easy to grow, are not susceptible to pests, and tolerate dry sandy soil. P. angustifolia is mildy salt-tolerant, grows quickly, but is not long lived. P. umbellata can live up to 40 years. Both are best grown from cuttings or seeds and do not transplant well.

Eleanor K. Sommer
Paynes Prairie Chapter

Austin, D. 2004. Florida Ethnobotany. Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press.
Holmes, P. 1997. The Energetics of Western Herbs. Boulder CO: Snow Lotus Press.
Kurz, H. and Godfrey, R. K. 1993. Trees of Northern Florida. Gainesville FL: University Press of Florida.
Moerman, D. E. 1998. Native American Ethnobotany. Portland OR: Timber Press Inc.
Peterson, L. A. 1977. Edible Wild Plants. New York: Houghton-Mifflin.


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