On my family farm, and on many surrounding homesteads here in Missouri, wild harvests were just as common as the harvest of cultivated domestic crops when I was growing up. These wild harvests involved gathering blackberries, gooseberries, walnut and hickory nuts, and morel mushrooms—all treats for hard-working families. But perhaps the most prized treat from nature’s bounty was the wild plum.

Trips to the wild plum thickets with a pail—and the sweet-tart taste of wild plum jam—had slipped back to just a childhood memory until last year. Ample rain and warm sun set forth a path to a bumper crop of fruit from the remaining wild plum thicket on our farm. While checking cattle last spring in a remote pasture, my wife and I were drawn by the brilliant white blossoms of several small trees. The flowers’ fragrance brought back my sweet memory. I told Jerilyn, “This is going to be a good year for wild plums.”

Wild plum is part of the Rosaceae (rose) family and is a shrub that propagates itself by root sprouts to form thickets, or it can be a small tree with spreading branches. The most common species here in the Midwest is the American plum. Its oval-shaped leaves are sharply toothed, with the upper surface dark green, the lower surface a bit more pale and net-veined. Its bark is dark brown to reddish in color. The bark and roots contain phloretin, an antibacterial agent. They say Native Americans discovered its healing power and utilized it as an astringent and a sedative.

Ripe wild plums provide an unforgettable sweet-tart taste experience.

Plum creek philosophy. To further refresh my memory, I read up on wild plums. The Missouri Department of Conservation is a good resource. I also reached back to my childhood and thumbed through a favorite book, “On the Banks of Plum Creek,” by Laura Ingalls Wilder, an authentic homesteader.

According to the Missouri Department of Conservation, wild plum thickets often grew in wetland margins, streambanks, and the edges of wooded glades. After farming changed the landscape, wild plum became a staple of the fencerow. Thankfully, the wild plum tree is resilient and is still found today growing on roadsides, streambanks, pastures, and woodland edges. Fire and other disturbances rejuvenate old plumb thickets; new thickets also start when animals spread seed pits.

Wild plum thickets provide a good habitat for birds and wildlife. Their dense framework of thorny branches, growing low to the ground, offer safety and cover for cottontail rabbits, quail, and deer. The thickets also help stabilize streambanks and wetland edges. Bees and butterflies are attracted to their profuse springtime flowers and feed on the nectar.

Insects also love the juice from ripe fruit. It reminds me of a passage from Laura’s book: Bees and hornets stood thick along the cracks [of the wild plum fruit], sucking up the juices with all their might. Their scaly tails wiggled with joy. They were too busy and too happy to sting. When Laura poked them with a blade of grass, they only moved a step and did not stop sucking up the good plum juice.”

Plum crazy. After spring turned to summer, one tree, in particular, kept growing with thick, full leaves. It seemed to be beckoning us to return for one more wild plum harvest.

When summer flirts with fall and nights cool down, plum thickets offer up their sweet-tart bounty. I noticed that the wild plums began crowding the branches of our trees. The fruit enlarged to the size of a quarter and began turning from light purple blush to a deep rose color.

Our nature neighborhood took notice, as well. Birds began picking ripened fruit. It seems wild plums are favored by many species—birds, wild turkeys, raccoons, opossums, skunks, foxes, squirrels, and deer. I knew it was time for action when one morning, I went to check on the wild plum tree, and a couple of our cows were stretching their necks and using their long tongues to swipe low-hanging fruit from its branches. I shooed the cows away and grabbed a bucket from the pickup, and backed the vehicle up against the tree for easier harvesting.

First things first, however. I needed to taste-test a sample. The burst of flavor that fills your mouth when biting into a fresh wild plum is unforgettable.

The harvest harkened back to Laura Ingalls Wilder: When they came to a plum thicket, they set down their big pails. They filled their little pails with plums and emptied them into the big pails [until] they were full. Then they carried the big pails back to the roof of the dugout. On the clean grass, Ma spread clean cloths, and Laura and Mary laid the plums on the cloths to dry in the sun. Next winter, they would have dried plums to eat …”

When I realized we had enough bucketfuls to make a big batch, I ask Jerilyn to call my neighboring cousin, Virginia McNary Pautz, and see if she would help. McNary Pautz has kept custody of the wild plum processing knowledge handed down from her ancestors and keeps a fully stocked kitchen for canning vegetables and fruits in the basement of her farmhouse.

Virginia McNary Pautz turns wild plums into a tart and tantalizing jam.

The first step was dumping the plums into cool water in her kitchen sink to wash and sort. “Only ripened fruit will do for jams and jellies,” she observed. Then McNary Pautz simmered the prime plums in a syrup boiled from water and cane sugar. Sometimes she includes a few hard plums to add extra tartness. She then strains the resulting mash through a cheesecloth to remove pits and skins, and the remaining extrusion of plum juices becomes the basis for wild plum jelly.

Some wild plum connoisseurs have branched out beyond jam and jelly and make sauces and wine; others make dried plums like Laura’s family did 150 years ago.

No matter your taste, this fruit holds a special place in the hearts of many Missouri homesteaders. Word got out not long after our harvest, and a host of cousins and neighbors sent their requests for a jar—or two. We kept a reserve, but also gave away decorative jars of wild plum jam as Christmas gifts. It was a rare blessing to see this cycle of wild plum harvest was repeated once more on our Missouri farm.

Read more