Picture this: Dark gnarled branches buried in sand forming dense twiggy colonies along the barrier sand dunes of Lambert’s Cove beach. What is this remarkable plant that lives within such a challenging environment? The answer comes each May when these same stems erupt with beautiful white flowers, a special spring feature of our native beach plum, Prunus maritima. The flowering lasts about a week but over the following hot summer months plump fruits form creating a bountiful crop for harvest. A devoted following of beach plum enthusiasts reside on Martha’s Vineyard and a renewed interest in local food production had led to a resurgence in the domestication efforts of this wild fruit, which has thus far been difficult to tame.
Like its common name implies, beach plum is found in or around beaches in sandy, exposed full-sun sites. More shrub-like in growth than a tree, the beach plum’s natural range extends along the Atlantic coast from New Brunswick, Canada south to Virginia.
Beach plums cultivated history includes several close relatives believed to have great potential for commercial orchard production. A book published in 1892, Cultivated Native Plums and Cherries by L.H. Bailey, details efforts made establishing named varieties as well as cultural recommendations for different parts of the country. Regional interest included the work of Edgar Andersen, geneticist at the Arnold Arboretum in the 1920s and 30s. Andersen was interested in exploring the genetic diversity within the species but first had to determine its geographical distribution. Frustrated in his own attempts to document populations locally by auto travel, he enlisted the help of pilot Oliver Ames (son of then- Arboretum director, Oakes Ames). They took to the sky during the bloom period and developed a distribution map along the Atlantic coast. Botanizing by plane was made possible by the pure white blooms of beach plum, a spectacular flowering plant, even from the sky!
In the 1930s, beach plum madness caught fire on Martha’s Vineyard when summer resident Ruth Eldridge White began her own attempts to commercialize the fruit. In her own words she describes her motivation: “The development of an industry from this native product seemed a sensible practical idea to me. A great industry has been developed on the Cape through the Cranberry … Why shouldn’t the beach plum make as important an industry as the cranberry? The flavor is certainly more appealing. That sweet bitterness comes from a life of hardship, I guess.”
Today, there is no viable beach plum industry on Martha’s Vineyard but there are plenty of individuals who harvest the fruits in early to mid September to make their own preserves. My own travels around the Vineyard are for fruit harvesting — not for preserves but to offer them at our plant sale. Each year, we can’t grow enough to meet demand! Past and current attempts to improve the selection and culture of beach plum have revealed that they make a good orchard crop and certainly a wonderful ornamental edible plant for the home garden. One troubling aspect is that they tend to bear fruit heavily one year and not the next. This may be a resource allocation strategy of the plants, balancing vegetative (leaf and stem) growth with flowering and fruiting. Critical components for beach plum culture include planting in full sun, sharp, free draining soil, and organic nitrogen at moderate levels for vigor.
The beach plum is well adapted for home garden use as a low-branched shrub and, design-wise, can be used much like dwarf ornamental crabapples are in modern landscapes.
For more information on beach plum culture, harvesting, and a myriad of fruit recipes and uses, visit the Cornell University website.