Ark of Taste
Beach plums were among some of the first plants European colonists encountered upon their arrival in North America. The explorer Giovanni da Varrazano referenced the beach plum upon a 1524 visit to New York, and Henry Hudson reported seeing beach plums in 1609 along the banks of what is today known as the Hudson River.
Rarely eaten raw, the beach plum is uniquely astringent and has traditionally been made into preserves. Horticulturalist George Graves, in a 1944 article in National Horticulture Magazine, wrote that the beach plum’s “fruit flavor is unmatched by that of any other fruit known to the jellymaker or fruit preserver.”
By the 1940’s, a vibrant beach plum preserve cottage industry had developed on Cape Cod. Agricultural agenda Bertram Tomlinson noted in 1948 that, “Beach plum jelly is made by thrifty housewives, who discovered that a tidy sum could be realized by selling direct to consumers at modes road stands.” Records show that in the 1930’s and 1940’s housewives were processing 15,000 bushels of beach plums per year on Cape Cod.
Generations of families have been picking and preserving beach plums. The summer pastime of foraging for beach plums and making preserves is an important part of the culture of places like Cape Cod and Long Island. Cornell researcher Richard Uva writes: “I would say that Cape Codders feel a sense of entitlement to the species and its fruit … in late summer, when people gather the fruit from the wild for jelly and other preserves … its importance its importance to the local culture becomes most apparent. The long-time gatherers have secret spots and favorite bushes, and strangers carrying pales are viewed with suspicion.”
Native to the North Atlantic coast, beach plums thrive from Maine to Maryland. It grows either as a tree-like form or as a low, bushy plant that can spread to widths of 10 to 15 feet long. The fruit is red, purple, deep blue, and sometimes yellow; it is half and inch to an inch in diameter. The fruit ripens in late August through September.
Typically found growing wild in sandy environments, the beach plum grows well in low nutrient, low water-holding soils. It also endures high winds, blowing sands, and high salt levels. The beach plum is noted for its use in conservation efforts as its root system penetrates deep in to the soil and prevents erosion. It has proven resistant to domestication.
The beach plum’s enemy is development. Real estate developers are encroaching on the coastal lands that beach plums stubbornly call home. Pickers have complained for decades of the increasing scarcity of the fruit, and blame its disappearance on loss of habitat.
Beach plum preserves continue to be a poplar regional product, but the scarcity of the fruit has led to products being marketed as beach plum preserves that do not actually contain any beach plums. There are only a handful of regional producers that make authentic beach plum preserves, but the tradition lives on in the households that still head out to their secret spots each year, foraging for the fruit, then painstakingly preserving it to share with friends and family.