Wild Things: Beach Plums

Beach plums and their jelly

by: Lucy Apthorp Leske

photography by: Nicole Harnishfeger

You can take the plum out of the wild, but can you take the wild out of the plum? One of Nantucket’s unique native sons, the beach plum is well-known as the source of beach plum jelly, a staple in Nantucket kitchens as long as most people can remember.

Yet its culture and predictability remain elusive and far less developed than that of the native wild blueberry, which spawned a tremendously successful commercial blueberry industry throughout the country. After all, on top of its sweet fruits, the beach plum also offers spectacular fragrant white flowers that coat its bare branches in early spring, a claim the blueberry can only approach with its demure white bells.

The fact of the matter is the beach plum never evolved into anything approaching a commercially viable or ornamentally valued plant. Is it possible the beach plum simply can’t be tamed?

Named Prunus maritima by plant taxonomist Humphrey Marshall in 1785 for its abundance along the seashore and its horticultural classification in a large genus that includes peaches, cherries, almonds and prunes, the beach plum is one of North America’s most prized native plums. Its culinary use predated the colonists who noticed it almost immediately upon reaching our shores and who quickly introduced it into their kitchens to make both wine and jelly.

Today, the beach plum occupies the same range and habitat it did 500 years ago when it was first spotted by the European explorer Giovanni da Verrazano in 1524. Well adapted to coastal conditions from New Brunswick to Maryland, tolerant of wind and salt and drought-resistant, the beach plum has secured a foothold on the sunny, sandy, exposed areas of the East Coast shorelines where few other plants will grow.

On Nantucket, it grows from shore to shore and is so common that people who don’t know better consider it a weed, a junk shrub that ought to be replaced in favor of more cultivated or refined varieties.

Long-term islanders know different. They are as fond of the beach plum as they are of the high-profile blueberry because they know what treasure lies in store for them in the fall. The beach plum, you see, is the source of delicious fruit that, when made into jelly, is unlike any other. The pit is quite large and the flesh too tart for eating off the bush, but the flavor when made into jelly or wine is deep and distinctive.

As former director of the Maria Mitchell Association, Alice O. Albertson, observed in the “Nantucket Wildflowers” (Putnam, 1921), the beach plum is “a low and straggly shrub that grows mostly in groups on the commons. From this fruit is made the famous beach plum jam and jelly – that claret red jelly with a wild tang.”

Beach plums and their jelly provide conduits to our past and a deep resonant authenticity few other flavors can match.

The beach plum is more than a fruit tree, however. Despite its “straggly” reputation, the beach plum has many fine landscape attributes. In addition, its hardy nature and growth habit make it ideal for soil conservation and erosion-control purposes. Folks with gardens where it’s hard to grow anything else find the beach plum to be one of a handful of shrubs that not only provide ornamental beauty but also withstand extreme conditions.