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Orchard Trees - Plums

( Originally Published 1927 )

The genus prunus belongs to the rose family and includes shrubs and trees with stone fruits. Of the over one hundred species, thirty are native to North America; but ten of them assume tree form, and all but one are small trees. Related to them are the garden cherries and plums, native to other countries, and the peach, the apricot, and the almond, found in this country only in horticultural varieties. The wood of prunus is close-grained, solid, and durable, and a few of the species are important timber trees. The simplest way to identify a member of the genus is to break a twig at any season of the year and taste the sap. If it is bitter and astringent with hydro-cyanic acid (the flavor we get in fresh peach-pits and bitter almonds), we may be sure we have run the tree down to the genus prunus.

The Wild Red Plum

Prunus Americanus, Marsh.

The wild red or yellow plum forms dense thickets in moist woods and along river banks from New York to Texas and Colorado. Its leafless, gnarled, and thorny twigs are covered in spring with dense clusters of white bloom, honey-sweet in fragrance, a carnival of pleasure and profit to bees and other insects. In hot weather this nectar often ferments and sours before the blossoms fall. The abundant dry pollen is scattered by the wind. The plum crop depends more upon wind than upon insects, for the pollination period is very brief.

After the frost in early autumn, the pioneers of the prairie used always to make a holiday in the woods and bring home by wagon-loads the spicy, acid plums which crowded the branches and fairly lit up the thicket with the orange and red color of their puckery, thick skins. In a land where fruit orchards were newly planted, "plum butter" made from the fruit of nature's orchards was grate-fully acceptable through the long winters. Even when home-grown sorghum molasses was the only available sweetening, the healthy appetites of prairie boys and girls accepted this "spread" on the bread and butter of noon-day school lunches, as a matter of course.

The Canada PIum

P. nigra., Ait.

The Canada plum (see illustration, page 151) whose range dips down into the northern tier of states, is so near like the previous species as to be called by Waugh a mere variety. Its leaves are broad and large, and the flowers and fruit larger. A peculiarity of blossoming time is that the petals turn pink before they fall. This tree furnished the settler with a relish for his hard fare, and the horticulturist a hardy stock on which to graft scions of tenderer and better varieties of plums. It is a tree well worth bringing in from the woods to set in a bare fence-corner that will be beautified by the blossoms in spring, and in late summer by the bright orange-colored fruit against the ruddy foliage.

Exotic plums have greatly enriched our horticulture, giving us fruits that vie with the peach in size and lusciousness. In New-England gardens, the damsons, green gages and big red plums are imported varieties of the woolly twigged, thick-leaved European, P. domestica, which re-fused utterly to feel at home on its own roots in the great middle prairies of the country. These European plums have found a congenial home in the mild climate of the West Coast.

Japan has furnished to the Middle West and South a hardy, prolific species, P. triflora, generally immune to the black knot, a fungous disease which attacks native plums. Crosses between the Japanese and American native plums promise well. California now ranks first in prune raising as an industry, with France a close second. Prunes are the dried fruit of certain sweet, fleshy kinds of plums. Many cultivated varieties of Japanese plums have enriched the horticulture of our West Coast.

The almond, now grown commercially in California, is the one member of the genus prunus whose flesh is dry and woody, and whose pit is a commercial nut.

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