The beach plums (prunus maritima) are in full bloom now. Our noble little native plum is found along the dunes and beaches all over martha’s vineyard but establishes better on the northern shores. The beach plum can be found up and down the Atlantic coast from northern maine to about maryland, and rarely grows inland unless cultivated. The wild crop is bountiful on cape cod and the islands and it’s fruit highly sought after for the great jellies it makes. Severe irregularities in the plums ability to produce a crop have frustrated many lovers of beach plum jelly.
Many people and organizations have made efforts to understand and improve the plum. One such effort was here on martha’s vineyard. A beach plum enthusiast Ruth Eldridge White was looking for a commercial crop to help the weak agricultural economy of the area. in 1938 she donated some land and got the agricultural experiment station to support her endeavor to work with these plants. New varieties were created and copious notes and publications on the culture and care of the beach plum. Soon after funds were withdrawn at the vineyard and other experiment stations because of lack of funds and the demands of the war effort.
A group of concerned purveyors and growers of the plum on cape cod started a plum association in 1948. With the goal to standardize and protect the brand and quality of cape cod beach plum jelly. Development of standards, a qualifying label and marketing were undertaken by the group. But after four low yield years the association failed.
So why the low yield? In 1996 Richard Uva of Cornell started research on the plum with the help of a SARE grant, and soon was connected to the cape and islands where people were already actively pursuing it. Morning Glory Farm purchased 16 plum saplings from the experiment station and planted them in our ‘Cove Patch’ on the meshacket road in edgartown. These plants received no treatments after planting and grew poorly. The idea was that these plants survive and even thrive in the desolate dune environment, so plant them in you poor soils or on cranberry land’s borrow pits. After a few years of experiments, one I visited several times at Coonamesset Farm in Falmouth, the research group learned surprisingly to “treat it like a plum crop”. This meant to lime, fertilize, prune, and maintain the plants, and to remove excessive fruit by thinning and this should even out the biennial bearing that plagued the crop.
In 2002 I collected plums and the resulting seeds from eight locations around martha’s vineyard. I stratified the seed (cold treating to simulate winter) and planted them in the greenhouse for two years until they were large enough to plant out to the orchard. In spring of 2005 I planted over 200 plums in our Cove Patch carefully and using the new guidelines set up by the new beach plum project. They grew slow the first couple of years and were heavily browsed by the deer, and some winter losses of plants. However many have survived or been replanted and we have had a couple of successful harvests. The plants have been pruned and trained to start growing upright and with a open center (like a wine glass). We now have many bushes resembling trees and about four feet tall. I have been unwilling to fungicide or insecticide treat the crop so losses have occurred because of brown rot and the plum curcillio pest.
I still have high hopes for getting a even, regular and bountiful crop and hope to employ our kitchen in making the jellies for sale in our farmstand. As a farmer so often does, I have applied by best assurance for a good crop I know as Jim says ” I crossed my fingers”
Lets all cross our finger for a good crop! I love beach plum jelly!