Tantalizingly fuchsia in color and a tart-sweet mouthful, wild plums are a favorite find for foragers and my timepiece for the growing season along the front range of the Rocky Mountains.
Each spring, often before the snows break or the cold winds stop grinding, the flowers of wild plum, Prunus americana, are among the first notices that spring has indeed sprung. Their delicate white blossoms perfume the air along fence rows, next to ponds, in fields and at the base of canyons.
Wild plum bushes have a particular fondness for growing in irrigation ditches, which is why I’ve given them the affectionate nickname, “ditch plums.” At that time of the year, when it seems the gray of winter has stretched beyond reason, my fair ditch plums assure me that asparagus and morels will soon be pushing through the ground.
Come early summer, the dense thickets of wild plum shrubs have fully matured leaves, and it becomes clear that wild plum bushes are everywhere. Once you know how to spot their profile, it is astonishing to see just how abundant ditch plums are here in the Rockies, where the high desert prairie nestles up against the mountains. When the plums have fully leafed out, even though snow seems a recent memory, it is a reminder that the full kaleidoscope of summer is rushing in.
As summer progresses, the fruit itself makes its first appearance, dense and hard, looking a bit like an olive. At this time of year, as I walk through the ditches, the plum tells me it’s the perfect time to harvest leafy herbs, wild flowers and wild garlic.
Deep into summer, wild plums start to ripen and take on a range of royal colors, from blushing peach to port red to amethyst. As tempting as wild plums look at this stage, don’t make the mistake of picking them, because they still possess a puckering bitterness. Instead, understand that this is the time to wander the slopes of the mountains looking for raspberries, strawberries, and porcini mushrooms.
When autumn finally blows into town, the plums whisper a singular message — pick me! The Rockies are known for a variety of fruits, particularly sweet peaches, and a few sparkling varieties of apples. But to my mind, it is the abundant and delectable wild plum that shines as the fruit that tastes of this place.
A potentially tricky harvest
Harvesting wild plums is easy, because when they are truly ready to eat, they will drop from the bush with the barest touch. If your chosen wild plum bush should happen to be on flat ground, you can put a tarp or blanket beneath it, shake the limbs, then collect the fallen fruit.
If, however, your wild plum is growing on the side of a ditch, harvesting can be a bit trickier, because any dropped fruit will plunk into the water. In this situation, place a baseball mitt or small box beneath an individual branch as you harvest the fruit. That way, most of the falling plums can be saved from swimming in the ditch.
Once harvested, wild plums keep nicely in flat boxes in a cool dry place for a few days. If you happen to have picked underripe fruit, they will continue to mature off the branch. When fully ripe, unripened bitterness is replaced by a magical zing of tartness just under the skin, and an ambrosial sweetness closer to the pit. It is this balance of honeyed-sweetness and piquancy that makes wild plums mouthwatering when fresh and a versatile addition to a number of cooked foods.
Versatile in sweet and savory dishes
It’s hard to resist making simple jams with wild plums, but don’t stop there because they have so much potential in a wider range of recipes. Wild plums lend themselves well to baked dishes such as buckles, crumbles and cobblers. When combined with apples, ditch plums make a nice fruit leather, which keeps well and makes a great snack, or can add a haunting sweetness to meat sauces and gravies. The tart kick of wild plums also perfectly suits more savory sauces, such as duck sauce and chutney. Ditch plums also make a lovely folk wine.
Every year, I like to make a batch of ditch plum ketchup, based upon my grandfather’s old farmhouse tomato ketchup recipe. Wild plum ketchup can be used in all the places you enjoy tomato ketchup, but also try it with roasts and game meat, or as the base of a barbecue sauce.
Old Farmhouse Plum Ketchup
- Mix all the ingredients and bring this mixture to a very low simmer.
- Let the mixture cook until it thickens considerably.
- Taste while the batch is cooking and vary the amount of vinegar, sweetener and spices in this recipe to suit your tastes. Just keep tasting it until it hits the right notes for your palate.
- Let the mixture cook gently over low heat for 20 minutes, or until it reaches a thick, jam-like consistency.
- Keep refrigerated.
Zester Daily contributor Wendy Petty lives in the Rocky Mountains, where she is a forager, photographer and wild foods consultant. She writes about her adventures with mountain food on her blog, Hunger and Thirst.
Photos, from top:
Wild plums hanging on the tree.
Using a mitt to harvest ditch plums.
Credit for photos and slide show: Wendy Petty