Have you seen the brilliant red ripe one inch in diameter balls decorating the small, shrubby trees in fields and along roads. The sand plums are ripening. The Red, Western, Sand, Sandhill, Mountain Cherry, Cherokee or Chickasaw plum (choose your favorite common name) all fall under the scientific name of Prunus angustifolia. Prunus describes the showy spring flowers of plants in the rose family that produce tasty fruit. Angustifolia is Latin for narrow leaf. The sand plum is a small tree ranging from 4 to 10 feet tall (some isolated trees top 25 feet), 4-6 feet wide and notorious for inbreeding. Horticulturalists have developed several cultivars (‘Guthrie’, ‘Rainbow’ and ‘Chisolm’) each with some differences in leaves and fruits.
Short shrubby plum thicket is one identifying characteristic of this chummy plant. The prickly thorns as well as flowers that appear very early in the spring before the leaves are other giveaways. As you guessed, they like to grow in sandy soil, especially along ditches or rivers, but will tolerate heavier clay-loam soils. Sun they love, but partial shade can work. If fire or drought frequently sweep the area, they die off or struggle years to recover. That said, once established the sand plum can handle dry conditions, especially when sheltered in groups.
Technically, the fruit is a drupe with thin skin and thick flesh surrounding a single seed. Cherries and peaches are drupes, but so are almonds and pecans. We eat the seeds of these instead of the fruit!
Sand plums are native to the southeastern part of the US as far west as KS and TX. Their original rage was Texas and Oklahoma, like the Osage Orange (Bois d’arc). They peter out before reaching the OK Panhandle. The plum curculio snout beetle has crept in from the Rocky Mountains to attack our plums and peaches. The plums are also susceptible to fruit brown rot and bacterial leaf spot. Might as well throw in spring tent caterpillars.
A good thick stand of sand plums give cover to quail, sparrows, turkey, rabbits, small mammals, foxes and even white-tailed deer. Loggerhead shrikes, brown thrashers, mockingbirds and Painted Buntings nest in the branches. The little trees stabilize blowing soil, gullies and stream banks. As an outside row they form an excellent windbreak. Honey bees, wild bees, bumble bees, flies and wasps pollinate the tree in spring. Here’s something to raise your eyebrows. The sand plum is larval host to 465 moths and butterflies, including the Eastern Tiger Swallowtail, Red-spotted Purple, Spring Azure and Viceroy butterflies. In summer the wildlife, livestock and humans eat the fruit. This is no trash tree. The sand plum is incredibly valuable. Everybody should have a sand plum or two somewhere in their yard.
Orchards and nurseries sell sand plum trees on-line. Now is the time to collect seeds. First, sample some plums to make sure the fruit is tart and tasty. Some sand plum trees produce very bitter fruit. The seeds need at least two months of moist cold, so imitate nature and stratify the seeds. Toss clean seeds in a bag with a sand-peat mixture three times the amount of the seeds. Store at temperatures between 36-41 degrees Fahrenheit (in the refrigerator). Check for germination from time to time. Plant in early spring.
Practice direct intervention and plant the seeds now in a designated marked area. Lightly mulch. If a dry spell occurs, water. Look for seedlings in the spring.
Transplanting the small sand plum should be done in early spring before bud break. It doesn’t need a rich soil. It is a native after all. Make sure the roots are always in water until the little tree is put into a hole twice the depth and three times the width of the root ball. Shovel soil over the roots until barely covered. Fill hole half-way with water and let drain. Fill the hole half-way with soil, top the hole with water, let drain and then finish filling the hole with soil. Press soil down around root zone using hands or feet.
Sand plum jelly is tart, full of flavor and simply amazing. Check out the “Summer of the Sand Plum” article by Lacey Newlin in the High Plains Journal, July 2019 edition. Like her mother, she also picks and makes sand plum jelly. Few plums made last year, but this is turning out to be a great year. Go find your sand plum.