Plums are some of the most prized crops of the home orchard. Ripening any time between May and September depending on the variety and zone, plums have a sweetness and tartness about them that causes the face to pucker and taste buds to dance in delight. Home gardeners and epic homesteaders wanting to add a plum tree to the garden should search out a variety that is suitable to their area, and their acreage.
There are three main types of plums. Some of the most commonly found in the United States are European plums, but Asian plums are quickly catching up with such succulent varieties as the Santa Rosa plum. Equally impressive is the American Plum, a hardy bush or small tree native to North America that is the most disease and pest-resistant variety of all.
Depending on your garden space, you’ll want to choose trees with the characteristics you’re after. Plum trees can be broken down by growing zone, fruiting season, size and color, whether it needs cross-pollination, and whether the fruit is eaten ripe or preserved either through canning or drying. All species of plum are suitable for espalier, so people with smaller spaces can raise plums too!
European plums are known to have firmer flesh and are slightly smaller than Asian plums. European plums are great for preserves and turning into prunes. There are several varieties that are great for both fresh eating and storage, whether dehydrated or canned. Asian plums are slightly larger in size, and their trees are known for rapid vertical growth. As these plums need fewer chill hours, they’re increasingly popular in warmer climates.
While most plum trees will bear within 3-5 years, for many plum trees they’ll need another plum friend nearby to get any crop whatsoever. This is a relationship called cross-pollination, where the pollen from one bloom crosses with the pollen from another bloom on a different tree. This reliance on cross-pollination is a great reason to have multiple varieties in the garden. Possibly even varieties that grow at slightly different times of the year.
European Plum Trees
There are dozens of varieties of European plum that have been domesticated here in the United States. While many of them have been grafted onto native rootstock to help prevent diseases commonly found in the US, they still retain their classically European flavor and characteristics. These plums are also the only plums that are usually dried to create prunes.
Coe’s Golden Drop
A medium to large oblong fruit with a golden to blush red exterior and golden interior, this very well-known plum is the most popular of the European plums. With its intense flavor when eaten ripe it’s easy to understand why. Especially famous in its native Europe, this cultivar does well in zones 5-9 and ripens late, usually in October. Like many of the older varieties of plums, it needs a flowering plum nearby for cross-pollination. Growing to a height of around 10 feet in full sun, with a spread of about the same, this is a great option for a smaller home garden. With white flowers in the spring and beautiful autumn colors, this can also be grown as an ornamental.
The Stanley plum is a great option for home cooks. While it is often enjoyed fresh, this large plum with purplish-black skin and yellow flesh is great for canning and used when dried. It is a sweet and juicy midseason harvest, growing best in zones 5-7. As a self-fruitful variety growing to 18 feet with a spread of just 10 feet, it’s a great option for a smaller garden.
The Italian plum, or Prunus domestica ‘Italian’, produces a beautiful classic, medium-sized dark purple-shaped fruit. While slightly oval in shape with yellowish-green flesh, this tree is particularly wonderful as it produces continuously from late summer through fall. As this variety is also late to flower, it’s a great choice for gardeners looking for fruit trees that will survive a late frost.
This variety is also known to be a relatively low maintenance option with the added bonus of having fruits that store well after being picked. It’s also known to make some of the most flavorful and meaty prunes!
Another traditional cultivar, the fruits of this tree look almost pear-shaped. With the traditional dark purple exterior and amber flesh, however, they could never be mistaken for anything other than a plum tree! This variety has a long history of being grown to make prunes. Eaten fresh, canned, baked, dried, or cooked into chutneys, this French variety was once valued almost as much as salt for its versatility and importance during fruit-free winters. Growing best in zones 5-9 with a late harvest period, this option is a homesteader’s delight.
A very large plum, this variety has adapted very well to American Northeastern climates. Growing in zones 5-9 and producing a freestone plum (meaning the stone separates easily from the flesh), this late producer does need a pollinator in order for a bountiful late harvest. With the classic purple exterior and yellow interior, this plum is known to be a disease-resistant variety but does need a nearby plum for cross-pollination.
The President plum is the last to mature of the plum trees. It has blue skin, with a yellow interior, and is rather large for a plum. A great fall-bearing choice, with ripe fruit maturing in September, this is great for the last of the ripe fruit of the year, and also to process for winter and the following spring. It needs a pollinator and produces well when flowering near Empress or Italian varieties. Oftentimes sold in the US on myrobalan plum rootstock,
Asian Plum Trees
While often referred to as ‘Japanese plums’, Asian plum trees are quite often actually Chinese plums that were introduced through trade with Japan. Growing across much of Asia, these fruit trees have a long history of being beautiful and delicious plants. Asian cultivars as a group are especially vigorous growers and will need heavier pruning over winter. Japanese plums make up most of the market for fresh plums around the world.
A self-fruitful, small edible fruit with a purplish-black exterior and yellow interior, this sweet and juicy plum produces mid-summer. Some may consider it a different species entirely from a plum (P. insititia). Called the Blue Damson due to its ties with the ancient city of Damascus, this cultivar has been handed down through the generations for thousands of years due to its sweet and tart flavor and large late harvests. A hardy grower that can tolerate most soil types, it does best in zones 5-7.
Red Beauty Plum
With a dark red almost magenta exterior, and a yellowish interior, the Red Beauty Plum is a wonderful early variety plum to add to the orchard. It’s sweet and sour and very flavorful as a result. A uniformly round fruit, it’s usually the first of any plum variety to show life and ripen in the spring. Growing well in zones 5 through 9 and bearing fruit in about 3 years, this is an all-around favorite.
Sprite Cherry Plum
The Prunus salicina x Prunus cerasifera, a hybrid of a cherry and a Japanese plum, this small and fruitful variety is known for its exotic qualities. It has a very sweet black exterior and an amber interior. While they’re delicious right off the tree, they can also be used in preserves or in cooking. Viable in zones 4-9 and ripening in mid-summer, this exotic cultivar can really wow dinner guests!
Myrobalan Plum (aka Cherry Plum)
The Myrobalans are very large growing trees, most often found on homesteads or large properties using trees as a hedge between farm and nature, or fellow neighbors. They’re known for their beautiful purplish bloom, wild nature, and tiny plums. They flower in late winter and early spring. Cherry plums are like the crab apples of the plum world. They’re a rather ancient variety and are often overlooked in favor of a more popular and large cultivar. While less sweet than other cultivars, they make fantastic jams and jellies and put out enormous harvests once mature. While somewhat difficult to prune, some do away with pruning all together and find they still have large harvests. They grow best in zones 5-8.
The Simka plum is a delicious and dark black skinned plum. While it is self-fertile, it has an improved crop size when grown near another plum. They’re loved for the heart-shaped plums it produces ranging in color from green to yellow and brilliant red. While a very beautiful tree in and of itself due to its attractive flowers and foliage, it has the added bonus of bearing edible fruit!
This fruit is larger than many of its juicer cousins and is used mostly for ripe fruit. Growing in zones 5-9, this tree will need a harder prune than many are accustomed to.
Despite its name, this variety is domesticated from a Japanese plum! It was domesticated in Burbank, California by the famous horticulturist Luther Burbank. It has a deep rich flavor with a slight tartness in the skin. The beautiful dark red skin is balanced by the amber interior and relatively small size. While not commonly found in grocery stores due to the plums’ small size and inability to hold up during transport, it is widely known to be a favorite among zone 10 gardeners (including myself!) due to its absolutely outstanding flavor and low chill requirements. A midsummer producer, it does well in zones 5-10.
The Wickson plum tree is a US-made hybrid crossed from Prunus salicina and Prunus simonii making it a Japanese cultivar. With a mid-season crop that keeps well, this greenish-yellow fruit has a mild flavor and a firm yellow interior that makes great preserves. A self-pollinating variety good in zones 6-9 ripening mid-summer, it grows to a rather tall 20 feet with a spread of about 12 feet.
A late-ripening plum similar to the famous Santa Rosa, this large, purplish, and self-fertile plum bears in August and September, making it the later version of the Santa Rosa. Best in zones 5-9, this tree will grow 15-20 in height and width and is usually eaten freshly picked instead of being preserved. While susceptible to some diseases, it does well in sandy soils and has attractive and fragrant flowers.
The satsuma, or Prunus cerasifera, is most often eaten right off the tree. This juicy crop is a deep red in color both inside and out and is extremely popular for its tastiness. A semi-dwarf variety, and great for growing in containers (like the 5-gallon Air Pots, or 10-gallon Air Pots from our store), this is a smaller tree growing only to about 12 feet in height with a spread of 10 feet. With attractive blooms and foliage, this tree can also be grown as an ornamental. When planting a satsuma plum, find a location free of heavy winds and in full sun. This tree can lose its blooms from heavy winds, and fail to fully ripen when lacking sugar-producing sunlight. Another option for growers with a garden in zone 10, this tree thrives in zones 5-10.
American Plum Trees
The elusive American Plum is no less interesting than its continental cousins. While not as widely known, the American plum has a long tradition of hearty growth and excellent flavor.
Chickasaw plum trees do well in the warmer climates of the American south. A native of Florida, the Prunus angustifolia, this plum thrives where others may need more cold. Flowering on last year’s wood, this impressive specimen can grow up to 25 feet tall with a 12-foot spread. Great for growers in zones 5-9.
The American plum, or Prunus americana, is native to the American Eastern Seaboard. A great option for people with long cold spells and those who live on the prairie, this variety will tolerate almost any soil. With an impressive height of 30 feet if not pruned, this plant will more often form thickets than the traditional single-trunked tree. Very disease resistant, with wonderful smelling flowers, this plant does need a cross-pollinator. Depending on your zone, you can expect plums from late July through September.
Flowering Plum Trees
Not all plum trees are grown for their food. Many plum trees have a particularly colorful bloom. While some produce edible fruit, some are grown almost entirely for their show-stopping flowers and beautiful foliage. The most popular is the Prunus atropurpurea, commonly called the Flowering Plum.
A small deciduous tree that grows to a height of about 20 feet, and 15-20 feet width, this plant can be seen from a distance! With showy white and pinkish blooms in early spring, this variety will then produce dark purple leaves that turn red in fall. An incredible color, this tree is widely used as an ornamental. While this tree’s flowers do eventually turn into small red fruits, the fruits are edible but not strongly desired in taste.
Frequently Asked Questions
Q: Where do plum trees grow best?
A: Plum trees grow best in USDA zones 4-10 with rich soil, and enough chill hours for their particular variety.
Q: How long does it take to grow a plum tree?
A: On average, it will take 3-5 years for a tree to produce plums, but several more years before a mature harvest is possible.