Wild Plums

Plums grow wild almost everywhere in the United States, much of Canada, and throughout Europe and Asia. In fact, they are so widespread that I must assume wild plums grow everywhere but in artic conditions.

The common American plum (Prunus americana) is found in stands from Connecticut to Montana and south into Mexico. It is a small, rather twisted, thorny tree or shrub growing in thickets, along roadsides, on riverbanks, and in drained lowlands. Its blossoms have a distinctive fragrance and usually appear in April or May. The fruit ripen from green to yellow to red in August and September and fall when ripe. The Texas wild plum (Prunus texana) blossoms as early as late February or early March and will completely ripen and experience fruit drop by May or as late as June. Both the American and Texas wild plums are small with tasty pulp and astringent skins.

The Canada plum (Prunus nigra) has slightly larger, tastier and less astringent fruit than its American cousins, The Canada plum has larger flowers and the fruit ripen earlier -- usually in August. It is found in thickets and along woodland edges from Quebec to Manitoba and south to Ohio and Iowa.

The Beach plum (Prunus maritima) is found only along the Atlantic coast from New Brunswick to Virginia, sometimes extending inland as far as 20 miles. The Chicksaw plum (Prunus angustifolia) ranges from New Jersey to Indiana and southward and is found in woods and thickets. The Wild Goose plum (Prunus munsoniana) is found in thickets from Kentucky to Missouri and southward and is most common in the Mississippi River floodplains. The Hortulan plum (Prunus hortulana) is restricted to moist woods and thickets in the middle Mississippi Valley and is rather rare. The California plum (Prunus subcordata) is found only in northern California and southern Oregon. The Cherry plum (Prunus cerasifera), or myrobalan, is native to Asia and ripens a red or yellow fruit.

Closely related to plums and occupying the same genus are cherries. But that is considered another fruit and will be covered separately.

Most wild plum trees grow from 5 to 15 feet high and are not particularly attractive. They have twisted, omni-directional branches, often with significant thorns. Many species have a tendency to sprout offspring from their spreading roots, which leads to thick stands of intertwined, thorny branches. The fruit, when ripe, is typically globular and small, from 3/4 to 1 1/2 inches in diameter. Some wild species grow to 2 1/2 inches in diameter, but the tendency is to grow small fruit. The fruit drops after ripening and is easily picked.

Domesticated and hybrid varieties do not propagate true from their seed. If germinated, the seed will usually produce the rootstock upon which the hybrid or cultivar was grafted. More often than not, this is a wild plum or a variety only slightly removed from the wild.

Wild plums make an excellent wine, but, like cherry wines, it must be aged for some time to "come into its own." When fermentation ends, wild plum wine is almost undrinkable and the winemaker will be tempted to either over-sweeten it to overcome its astringency or toss it out altogether. Either course of action would be a mistake. The correct action is to simply put the wine in a dark, cool place and forget about it for at least one year. Plum wine is best when fermented slightly sweetened, but it does okay as a sweet or dessert wine and is very good with glazed or stuffed fowl, especially wild fowl. Personally, I like it fermented to dryness (S.G. 0.990) or semi-dryness (S.G. 0.995 to 1.000).

The following recipes should be considered guidelines only. All will make decent wine from any wild plum chosen, but different plums will make different wines and different trees will produce different plums from one year to the next. Astringency and sugar content are the primary considerations. Very astringent wild plums contain more acid but you should not reduce the acid blend appreciably. The sweetness of the flesh will not greatly affect the natural sugar content of the plums, but it will have a slight affect (you might have to add or reduce sugar added by 1/4 pound). One authority (W.H.T. Tayleur) warns that both sugar and acid content can vary as much as 300% between a good season and a bad one. He recommends testing the pH of juice extracted from a few specimens and adjusting to about 3.3. Sugar should be added to achieve a beginning S.G. of 1.085 to 1.095.


Put 1/2 gallon water on to boil. Meanwhile, wash, sort, destem, and destone the fruit. Chop if large and save all juice. Transfer fruit and any juice to nylon straining bag in primary graduated (marked) by pints to one gallon, add grape concentrate, boiling water, cover and allow to cool to lukewarm. Add crushed Campden, recover and wait 12 hours. Crush fruit by hand by squeezing bag. Mix in half the sugar, stirring well to dissolve. Lift the bag of fruit and allow to drain about two minutes, then add water to bring liquid up to 7 pints. Return bag to liquid, measure and note S.G., and then add acid blend, tannin, pectic enzyme, and yeast nutrient. After 12 hours, add yeast. Twice daily squeeze bag of pulp. After 7 days of fermentation, drip drain bag of pulp 2-3 hours, squeezing gently at end to coax additional juice from bag. Add drained juice to primary and use hydrometer chart to determine how much additional sugar to add to achieve S.G. of 1.095 (find previously measured S.G. on chart and determine how much sugar to add to that to achieve target S.G. of 1.095). Add sugar and stir well to dissolve. Allow to settle overnight and then rack into secondary and fit airlock without topping up. After 7 days top up. Rack after one month, top up and refit airlock, and repeat after additional two months. When wine clears, wait one additional month, rack, top up, refit airlock, and set aside for bulk aging. Check water level in airlock monthly. After 6 months stabilize, wait 10 days, rack if needed, sweeten to taste and bottle. Do not drink for one year.[Adapted recipe from W.H.T. Tayleur's The Penguin Book of Home Brewing & Wine-Making]


Boil water with sugar or honey, skimming if necessary. Meanwhile, wash, destem and destone the plums, saving any juice. Over primary, pour into nylon straining bag and tie closed. Use the fat end of a sterilized baseball bat or piece of hardwood to mash the plums. Pour the sweetened water over the mashed fruit. When cooled to room temperature (about 4 hours), add acid blnd, tannin, yeast nutrient, and pectic enzyme. Cover primary with plastic wrap. After 12 hours, add yeast. Stir daily, punching down the bag of plums and squeezing gently. After 7 days, remove bag of fruit and allow to drip drain (do not squeeze). Add drained liquid to primary and check specific gravity. When S.G. reaches or falls below 1.020, rack into secondary, top up if required and fit airlock. After 14 days, rack into clean secondary, top up and refit airlock. Rack again in two months and again when wine clears. When S.G. measures 0.990, stabilize and wait 10 days. Rack, sweeten to taste and bottle. This wine should age in the bottle one year before tasting. If still astringent, wait additional year. [Adapted recipe from Terry Garey's The Joy of Home Winemaking]


Bring 1 gallon water to boil. Add barley and set aside, covered, for two days. Strain and discard barley (or use in soup). Bring half the water back to a boil. Meanwhile, wash, sort, destem, destone, and chop the wild plums, saving all juice. Transfer plums to primary and add boiling water, cover and allow to sit 5 hours. Strain and add the other half of water to pulp. After one hour strain this and combine the two lots of water and bring it to a boil. Pour this over the sugar, stirring to dissolve. When cool, add pectic enzyme, juice of orange and yeast nutrient. Cover and wait 12 hours and add yeast. When fermenting vigorously, gently transfer to secondary and fit airlock. When wine begins to clear, rack for first time, top up and refit airlock. Set aside for 4 months. Stabilize, wait 10 days and rack. Sweeten if required and bottle. Do not drink for one year.[Adapted recipe from C.J.J. Berry's First Steps in Winemaking]

This page was updated on November 8th, 2001.

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