Natural Species Profile - Plums
By: Kent Kammermeyer
Most people do not really connect plums and whitetails. I did not until last year when I watched a doe come out every afternoon for over a week and eat plums from under one of my trees. When she cleaned up the ground, she milled around for awhile listening, watching, and hoping for more to fall. Since deer food habit studies are rare in June and July, the deer literature has scant information on deer use of plums. I’m convinced plums are a vital part of a deer’s summer diet once they ripen and fall.
Plums are native to the entire U.S. with the exception of Texas, the West Coast, and Pacific Northwest. Members of the rose family, wild plum is a small, deciduous tree up to 30 feet tall with a roundish outline and a smooth brown bark becoming rough with age. Leaves are alternate, simple, and elliptical with a finely-serrated margin, sharply-pointed tip, and three to four inches long. White flowers (five petals, one inch across) appear in small clusters in early spring. The fruit is nearly round, one inch across, reddish purple to yellow brown. It ripens in early to mid-summer.
Wild plum (also known as American or goose plum) is very hardy, drought-resistant, and grows quickly. It prefers deep, moist soils and plenty of sun, but will grow in a wide range of soils and partial sun. The suckers in the root system make it a great choice for erosion control along stream banks and gullies. Due to its quickly spreading nature, it is often found naturally in pastures, woodland borders, wetlands, and along roadsides. Plums are somewhat tolerant of weed and grass competition but they will grow faster with good control of competition.
Plums can be started from seed. Plant plum seeds one to two inches deep in the spring or fall. For best results, plant 1-year-old, bare-root seedlings 18 to 24 inches tall. Plant in late fall or early spring spacing six to eight feet apart. Dig a large hole (dig a $10 hole for a $1 seedling), place the seedling and fill with topsoil or potting soil mix if necessary. Add lime, if needed. Water thoroughly and pack the soil firmly. Although the leaves and twigs are not usually browsed by deer, protect the seedlings with plastic ventilated tree shelters or wire cages.
Varieties/Management Plum tree management is easy. They don’t require pruning or spraying. Just keep competition killed back with an annual spraying of glyphosate (Roundup or GLYFLO) on the ground out to the dripline. Fertilize once per year in early spring (at budbreak) with two pounds of 10-10-10 per inch of diameter at breast height.
Other plum alternatives include both wild and domestic cousins and crosses bred for fruit quality and/or adaptability to certain climates. Chickasaw plum (Prunus augustifolia) is a small tree found in the southern U.S. that forms thickets in open areas by root sprouting. The fruit are yellow-red, sweet, and readily eaten by deer, bear, fox, and raccoons. The thickets also create valuable cover for quail, songbirds, and other wildlife. Purple leaf plum (Prunus cerasifera) is a common ornamental plum with pink flowers and deep reddish purple leaves that can double as a wildlife fruit with 1 1/2-inch reddish plums ripening in mid-spring to mid-summer. Most have thorns with fruit being one-half to 1 1/2 inches and oblong. When mature, this plum is yellow, dark red, or purple.
The Canada plum (Prunus nigra) is native to Upper Midwest, Northeastern U.S., and Southeastern Canada. Others include domestic varieties such as Santa Rose, Methley, Morris, Ozark Premier, Blue Damson, Stanley Self-fruitful, and Early Blue Self-fruitful. One note, some domestic varieties are more susceptible to brown rot on the fruit than their wild cousins. For more information on varieties, call Greenwood Nurseries at 800-426-0958 or Lawson’s Nursery at 770-893-2141.
I have six plum trees on my property in north Georgia and all are domestic varieties, including purple-leaf. My biggest problem is that they frequently bloom too early and are frostbitten. This is a very common problem. Check with your state extension office and obtain a list or advice on plum varieties that are adapted to your area. You will still have occasional frost problems, but not as frequent. When mine make it through the frosts, they make excellent jelly and there are still plenty for the deer.