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Press Release

Release Date: December 04, 2013
by KC Cole

Plums are grown everywhere in the world. The hardy trees that produce the fruit are perennials and have been grown by people since agrarian culture began. The sweet-tart tasting Chickasaw plum comes from a tree first cultivated by Native American tribes.

Chickasaw plums were used for food by Chickasaws and other Native people long before the arrival of Europeans. William Bartram, a respected naturalist of the late 1700s, cataloged plants, animals and customs of the people he encountered.

Bartram wrote of the Chickasaw plum: “The Chickasaw plumb I think must be accepted, for though certainly a native of America, yet I never saw it wild in the forests, but always in old deserted Indian plantations. I suppose it to have been brought from the (southwest) beyond the Mississippi, by the Chickasaws.”

Oklahoma State University Extension Educator Justin McDaniel has high praise for the fruit.

“The Chickasaw plum is great,” McDaniel said. “The Chickasaws used this plum as one of their predominant food sources. That’s why they got that name. The early Native American tribes relied on this indigenous plum as a food source.”

Hardy in nature, the Chickasaw plum tree occurs naturally in Southern states. On the East Coast, it grows deep into New England, and its habitat stretches into Canada on the West Coast. The trees grow wild, but they continue to be cultivated. They are great landscape additions to lawns, parking lots and along roadsides.

Growing to a height of more than 20 feet, the Chickasaw plum is used to make jelly, pies, preserves and wine. The plum is about the size of a cherry and ripens well before early July. It attracts birds, squirrels and deer that use the tree for both food and shelter.

“The plum is safe to eat,” McDaniel said. “You can eat them while they are yellow, but they’re pretty bitter and sour. Once they have turned red, they are great to eat. They make great preserves.”

According to research published by Oklahoma State University, the Chickasaw plum serves many purposes within Oklahoma. For ranchers, large thickets of Chickasaw plums provide shade for cattle and other livestock, which can increase performance during the summer.

“In some instances, the Chickasaw plum can be considered invasive,” McDaniel said. “They do so well that some land owners have to do a little control to keep them from taking over pastures.”

Found in the wild, wildlife managers make judgment calls for specific growing areas. Left unchecked, the Chickasaw plum will grow into wide thickets. These thickets are great for nesting birds, deer and small animals, but can take space away from grasslands.

Chickasaw plum in the home garden

The Chickasaw plum is perfect for home gardens. This ornamental tree blooms in late winter and early spring. The many small white flowers emit a pleasant aroma. When the tree fruits and the plums begin to fall to the ground, there is very little litter problem.

“The Chickasaw plum is good for home gardens,” McDaniel said. “They don’t need much room to grow. Often they are seen in islands. They don’t require much care.”

This plum tree grows well in both full sun and shaded areas. It is able to grow in most soils, including clay and loose sand. It is drought, pest and disease resistant.

“If you think about Oklahoma, we are pretty diverse area,” McDaniel said. “We really see them in the central part of the state. We have good sandy soil and moderate rainfall. They are a hardy shrub that can take different growing conditions, like the drought we have seen the last two years.”

The tree’s root system requires water drainage. Waterlogged soil can damage the roots. Roots rising to the surface are not a worry for this tree. The tree is good for erosion control for fine and sandy soils, and the root system can grow in areas not hospitable to other plants and trees.

“The Chickasaw plum is not the best for soil erosion or reclamation programs because their roots are not extensive,” McDaniel said. “But the sandy soil they like may not support other plants. They will grow in pretty harsh conditions. They do help in those extreme sandy soil types.”

Pruning is required for clearance under the tree canopy and to provide additional strength to the trunk. The height of the Chickasaw plum can be controlled with regular pruning, perfect for planting under power lines. A naturally droopy tree, the Chickasaw plum requires pruning to increase the strength of branches and make them resistant to breakage.

Chickasaw plums are usually introduced into a home garden by seeds, seedlings or transplanted as small trees to a new location. Once planted, little care is required. The Chickasaw plum is self-pollinating; a single tree will bear fruit. With normal lawn mowing and weed control, new trees will not appear.

As an American tree, most local nurseries will be able to order and help with the growing and care for a new tree.

“Overall, the Chickasaw plum is a great shrub to plant for the home garden,” McDaniel said. “It is hardy, easily controlled and bears fruit. It grows pretty fast, it is resistant to drought, pests and disease.”