Chickasaw Plum: Yum

by Green Deane

in Edible Raw, Fruits/Berries, Jam/Jelly, Plants, Trees/Shrubs

Ripe Chickasaw Plums, locally in June. Photo by Green Deane

 Chickasaw Plum: First Springtime Blossom

Every spring, three wild plums put on a show locally: The Chickasaw, the Flatwood, and the American. They burst out in white blossoms and no leaves.

Five petals and many stamen

When in naked bloom they look similar but that’s where the resemblance stops. The Chickasaw and the American go on to produce consistently edible plums whereas the Flatwood’s fruit can range from extremely bitter to sweet. Telling these plums apart before they fruit is a bit of a guessing game.

If you have skinny leaves it is either the Chickasaw or Flatwood. If the tips of the teeth on the leaves have yellow or red glands (you’ll need a hand lens) it is the Chickasaw, otherwise the Flatwood. If you have fat leaves with a strong pointed tip, it’s the American though it is not common here. Locally the fruit of the Chickasaw (Prunus angustifolia) ripens to a sweet red in the spring and is gone by June. It often forms a thicket.

In spring the tree is all white flowers and no leaves

The Flatwood (Prunus umbellata) which often stands alone, ripens to black or yellow and can be around through the summer into the fall. The American (Prunus americana) tends to fruit in late summer to early fall and has red fruit. The fruit of the Flatwood often remains amazingly bitter and hard even after months on the tree. Settlers used it to make jellies or fed it to livestock, hence its other common name, Hog Plum though there are several “hog” plums. Native Americans and settlers, however, regularly ate of the American and Chickasaw plums, the latter developing very sweet fruit with a tang. The first foragers used the plums fresh and dried for winter use. Some tribes took out the seed kernels, others didn’t. Let’s talk about that.

The skinny leave has a trough down the middle

Liberated from their shells the sunflower-sized kernels of these plums can create cyanide in your gut. Very small amounts don’t bother us but we are not talking about small amounts. Natives would make cakes out of the kernel mash. Letting the cakes set for a day or so allowed enzymes to work on those chemicals as did subsequent cooking, making the cake edible… or at least that is the explanation experts give. That strikes me as a lot of work for such a small amount of food that’s potentially toxic. It would also seem to expend more energy in preparation than one gets out of the kernels. That said they could have been a treat, a flavoring, an essential nutriment — oil — to make them worthwhile. Calories are not the only reason to forage.

In the 1800’s there was great interest in making cultivars out of native plums and by 1901 there were over 300 of them. But mechanization of fruit production in the early 1900’s led growers away from the native varieties though there has been some interest of late to use the native plums again as a high-value specialty crop.

The tips of the teeth will be either red or yellow if a Chickasaw Plum. Photo by Green Deane

The tips of the teeth will be either red or yellow if a Chickasaw Plum. Photo by Green Deane

Besides man the Chickasaw Plum’s fruit is eaten by deer, bear, fox and raccoon. The thorny thicket is valuable for songbird and game bird nesting including the bobwhite and mockingbird. It also makes a good wind break and can be used for erosion control. The plum, extensively used, was taken everywhere by the Chickasaw Indians and it has many local names. While usable, the Flatwood Plum, is not prime foraging food. Its quality can vary from tree to tree, rarely rising to the gustatory level of the Chickasaw Plum. The American Plum was also used by the natives.

The Chickasaw Plum is one of my favorite trail and yard nibbles. As to its botanical name Prunus angustifolia. Prunus (PROO-nus ) is the Roman name for the plum.  Angustifolia (an-gus-tee-FOH-lee-uh) means skinny leaf (see photo directly above.) Umbellata (um-bell-LAY-ta) means like an umbrella for its shape. Americana (ah-mare-ree-KAY-na) means American.  “Chickasaw” is Choctaw for “old” and “reside” or as we might say in English, “the old place.” Incidentally, the Chickasaw Plum is native to Texas and Oklahoma but is naturalized through much of the United States where there are sufficient winter chill hours, such as central Florida north.

The Chickasaw plum and the American plum are closely related and hybridize easily. That means… yep, you guessed it. You can find plums in the wild which display some characteristics of each and can be impossible to identify.

 Green Deane’s “Itemized” Plant Profile

IDENTIFICATION: Chickasaw Plum: Small thorny tree to 25 feet, usually much smaller, flower small, under half an inch, 5 white petals, fragrant; reddish orange anthers, appear in clumps in early spring before the leaves, fruit bright yellow to red, round to oval, 1/3 to 1/2 inch in diameter, flesh juicy small plum, bark first smooth and reddish then with numerous elongated light horizontal hash marks. The leaf has a center troth. The teeth have yellow or red glands on the tip. Some times the fruit can stay green yet ripens to sweet.

TIME OF YEAR: Late spring in Florida, late summer farther north, usually around September. Locally the Chickasaw Plum is done fruiting long before the 4th of July. The Flatwood Plum can have fruit persisting into the fall.

ENVIRONMENT: The Chickasaw forms thickets in open areas, any open space in scrub forest, sandy soil, roadsides, fences, prairies, Pennsylvania west to the Rockies, south south to Central Florida, also California. Easily transplanted or grown from seed. It requires some chilling so won’t grow in South Florida and similar climates. The Flatwood is often a stand alone.

METHOD OF PREPARATION: Chickasaw: Cherry-size plum, out of hand or for jelly, pies, preserves and wine. It makes a tart, bright red jelly.  The Flatwood was used to make jellies or to add to other jellies. It is usually too sour and hard to eat out of hand.

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{ 28 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Toni November 8, 2011 at 00:11

Thanks for the info. So it is just the pit that is poisonous! I am relieved. I ate some chickasaw plums growing near our house and then developed extremely severe heart attack symptoms. Later I read somewhere that the plums were poisonous. At least now I know it wasn’t true–my symptoms weren’t the fault of the plums.

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2 Green Deane November 8, 2011 at 06:04

The kernel inside a Chickasaw plum seed is about the size of a sunflower. It is doubtful one would notice anything from eating just one kernel. The natives would collect the kernels, mash them, let them set for a few days, then bake them into small cakes.

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3 Cameron February 9, 2012 at 15:12

Do you have to have two chickasaw plum trees for fruit production?

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4 Green Deane February 9, 2012 at 15:44

I’m sorry. I don’t understand the question. If you mean do I sell fruit trees, no I do not. If you mean what do I have growing in my yard, I have a large Chickasaw plum.

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5 Michael July 8, 2014 at 09:21

Chicasaw plums don’t seem to require a second bush to bear fruit. There does not seem to be a self-polination barrier as is true in some species.

Incidentally, through Columbia, South Carolina, where I live is an old indian trial, now called Two Notch Road (and is now also US 1). There are many places along this road to find chicasaw plums, presumably they were planted centuries ago as a forage item along the trail, or in areas that were inhabited for a time.

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6 Diana March 8, 2012 at 10:09

Hi Green Deane – I just found your website, and looks like I’ll be back…to explore. Lots of very valuable info for me!!!
My husband and I purchased a 19 acre site in GA to retire to; wooded with cabin and small clearing. I’m thinking of planting some chickasaw plums…around the borders and I can get them pretty cheap. Are they good producers? I’m a canner and have already started an orchard in the clearing, but would like some carefree fruit that I don’t need to spray.

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7 Eulala Pegram July 25, 2012 at 17:20

Can you tell me where I can order Chickasaw Plum Tree Seeds? Thank you.

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8 Green Deane August 13, 2012 at 09:13

B&T Seeds might have them. But th easiest thing to do is ask someone to send you some seeds in the spring after they have dropped.

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9 Charles Reid August 24, 2012 at 00:31

I think Cameron was actually asking if plums are self fertilizing or if you have to have a male and female tree to grow fruit.

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10 Green Deane August 27, 2012 at 14:09

They are self-fertilizing.

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11 Diana M February 6, 2013 at 13:34

Not until I got a second Chickasaw did the flowers mature into fruits. The trees are not male & female with only the female producing fruit(as in Holly or Pygmy Fringe), but they require cross-pollination between 2 separate but close by trees.

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12 Charles Reid August 24, 2012 at 00:33

Nice post by the way. I planted a couple Chickesaw plumbs and was curious how good they are for eating. Most sources sly mention they are good wildlife fruit or maybe good for jam. I am hoping they are good raw right from the tree.

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13 Green Deane August 27, 2012 at 14:09

I eaten the ripe ones off the tree for years. To me they taste as good as any purchased plum.

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14 Quanloi70 March 26, 2013 at 15:12

I have both yellow and red. The red are somewhat bitter, and the yellow are great, but both are edible right from the tree. The roots grow similar to blueberries in that they typically stay just below the surface of the ground and grow horizontally. Many new trees will grow from that horizontal root. If transplanted they usually require a little attention the first year, but after the first year they will probably survive with no attention.

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15 Carolyn June 27, 2014 at 12:53

Quanloi75. Are you located in Texas? If so do you have plums available that we could come and pick to make jelly for friends and family? Thanks, Carolyn (Dallas)

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16 Neale February 14, 2014 at 13:21

Just wanted to say that the American plum is also delicious if you get it when it is fully ripe. You should generally avoid eating the skin though since it is full of tanin and pectin, and is fairly astringent. But the flesh is delicious. I’ve picked gallons of these and made jams jellies and a sort of plum-pop. They were all very good (although again try to keep the skins out as much as possible). The pop included the skins and was initially very bitter, we discovered though that the bitterness could be reduced drastically by adding a small amount of gelatin powder to the batch as it cools.

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17 Wayne February 26, 2014 at 10:27

Mail Order Natives in Florida sell 3 different Chickasaw plum cultivars. Prices are inexpensive & the quality of the trees, service, & shipping is awesome.

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18 tanja Harmon February 27, 2014 at 19:13

When grown from seed, how many years till the tree produces fruit?

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19 Green Deane February 27, 2014 at 19:24

Three or four.

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20 Norman Lenz March 29, 2014 at 23:08

I live in Central Texas where the Mexican Plums are common. However, I remember that the Chickasaw fruit in SW Missouri is sweeter and more red. Both fruits are about the same size and make great jam. But, only the Chickasaw can be eaten straight off the tree. I got some Chickasaw cuttings from my sister in the area just east of Dallas. They have been potted now for a month and most are leafing out now. It looks like cuttings are the way to go. I recommend:
1. Small branches no larger than a pencil in diameter
2. Short pieces no longer than 8 inches below ground and 12 inches above ground after potted
3. Score the bark with a sharp knife along the area length to be potted below ground level. These will serve as areas for absorption of moisture and starting points for roots
4. Dip the trimmed, scored portion of the cutting in a liquid solution of root stimulator before potting.
5. Use at least one gallon pots so as to keep plenty of moisture in the soil until rooted
6. Water every day to keep the soil muddy wet until roots are established – about 2 months. I find that catch trays under the pots help maintain plenty of moisture.

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21 Carolyn June 27, 2014 at 12:51

Do you have plums that we could pick? And where are you located in Central Texas if they are available to pick. Thanks, Carolyn

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22 julie thomas April 22, 2014 at 00:40

I live near the in san jose california and just wondering if chickasaw plums are growing in my back yard. There are two thickets and one produces what looks like dull skinned cherries but another thicket a few feet from it makes a very slightly larger fruit that looks similar but grows on one stem not joined stems like cherries. The fruit on the first thicket I described has joined stems and looks like cherries except the skin is dull like a plum. Do these wild trees in my backyard seem like chickasaw plums?

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23 Nelson June 18, 2014 at 22:49

I think there’s a huge patch of these at the La Chula trail at Paynes Prarie. I recall some bare thorny trees with flowers there earlier this year.

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24 Carolyn June 27, 2014 at 12:47

I am in search of the wild plums to pick this year. We are aware of where they are growing in Okla – 6 hrs North of Dallas. We would like to pick them closer to Dallas. Please email me or post on the blog if you have them on your land available to pick, or have seen them along the roads or highways in North, North East, East or West Texas and reasonable driving distance from Dallas. Thanks, Carolyn

carolynhicks1950@gmail.com.

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25 Julie H June 29, 2014 at 19:45

Grew up in Oklahoma with lots of relatives in Kansas. Pretty sure these are what we call Sand Plums. My mom and I pick them wild and turn them into really yummy jam and jelly. Mom picked them with her grandma growing up in Kansas. We have friends who use them for wine, but I’ve never tried it. I live in Colorado now and have been on the lookout for wild plums. No luck yet. Love yourwebsite. I’m on my second batch of Cider, Hard, but fast and easy! Love it!

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26 Karen G. July 3, 2014 at 19:42

Several years ago a neighbor who has since moved away gave me some plums from her Chickasaw plum tree. I planted one of the seeds. A beautiful healthy looking tree grew up but it has never flowered – so disappointing. Its location is shaded in the morning but I think it gets plenty of sun in the afternoon. Do you think it would be a wasted effort to root a cutting to plant in another spot?

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27 Green Deane July 3, 2014 at 21:03

I think it would be a good idea.

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28 madison ruth walker November 7, 2014 at 11:06

i love this it really helped me with my chickasaw report <3

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