Harvesting and Cooking Wild Plums


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A bowl of wild plums
Photo by Holly A. Heyser

I see wild plums. They’re everywhere. And people don’t know they’re plums.

Even me. When we moved to California, I began seeing these odd red trees — the whole tree is a deep burgundy red. Weird. No one seemed to know what they were called. One of these trees grows two doors down from me in a neighbor’s front yard. Walking to the gym in summer, I’d notice it would be festooned with scores of what, to all the world, looked like cherries.

No one ate them. Could they be bitter? Poisonous, even? Finally, last year at around this time, I screwed up my courage and ate one. Wow. Tart, sweet, and definitely not poisonous or bitter! These little things tasted like a cross between a cherry and a plum.

I looked them up: Sure enough, the trees, which are planted literally everywhere around here, are prunus cerasifera, commonly known as the red-leafed or cherry plum.

A close up of a bowl of cherry plums
Photo by Holly A. Heyser

Now that I know what they are I see them on every block, in nearly every shopping center, especially in the nearby town of Rancho Cordova, where there must be some ordinance promoting the planting of plums.

Thus the conundrum: Almost all of them are on private property. My first foray for cherry-plums was in my neighborhood park, which has several trees dotted around it. Unfortunately, either this was an off year for the park trees or someone had picked them before me. All I got was a small produce bag of them, which Holly and I ate without further ado.

I resolved to scope out more trees I could pillage when the owners were not looking. Maybe on a Sunday morning?

Meanwhile, while I was on one of my foraging walks in the area I caught a glimpse of something in the corner of my eye. It was a large, light-colored orb in a tree. My first thought was oak galls, which are all over the blue oaks around here. I stopped and looked. Wait a second. This was no oak tree, and those were not galls…

They were plums! Wild plums! And the tree is loaded with them. These are the plums you see at the top of this post. How this tree got here is a mystery to me. I cannot find references to wild plums living in our part of California; another type of wild plum, a red one, lives up north near Klamath. Maybe it is feral? Maybe it’s just rare? My friend Elise knows of another such plum near American River College, so it’s not unique.

These plums are very different from the neglected cherry-plums in suburbia. The wildlings tasted, well, wilder. More tannic, coated in a pretty bloom like a white wine grape. Tart like the cherry plums, but not as sugary. My kind of fruit.

And they are all mine. No one else knows about this tree. It is off the beaten path, and even though the tree is loaded and the fruit is ripe, not a one had been picked, at least visibly. It is my secret treasure…

Back to the cherry-plums. Last week Holly, our friend Evan and I went for a quick barnyard pigeon and cottontail rabbit shoot out at his ranch — my first hunt since my injury in December — and, after we dispatched a brace of cottontails and a trio of barn pigeons, headed to a local diner for dinner.

Holly parked right next to a cherry-plum tree. A small one, too. As I got out of the truck, I looked into the tree out of habit. It was loaded. I mean groaning under the weight of so many plums! “We have to pick these,” I told Holly, who was game for it. So after dinner, we furtively filled up a grocery bag fill and headed home with our booty.

We ate a few plums on our way home. God, are they good! So tart and sweet.

A bowl of wild plums
Photo by Holly A. Heyser

Now I had enough to do something with them. I immediately thought plum liqueur, and I have a Mason jar full soaking in vodka right now. What else?

Well, I always make ice creams and syrups. I wanted to do something different this time. What about a pie? A pie? But Hank, you never bake pies. Ever. This is true. Here’s an admission: I’d never made a pie from scratch before. Really. I’ve made wild boar liver creme caramel, lemon verbena panna cotta, oddball cakes and weird sorbets, but never a simple pie.

I don’t eat pie very often. I do like a slice of apple pie with a hunk of cheddar cheese on it (meaning I am a true New England Yankee at heart, I guess), cheesecake, which is really more of a pie, as well as Holly’s mother’s pecan pie, which is to die for. But that’s about it.

Then I watched a recent episode of Top Chef, where the contestants were required to bake a pie. Any pie. One contestant said to the judge that she hoped she didn’t screw things up too bad, considering she wasn’t a pastry chef. The judge replied, “That’s a cop out — my grandmother isn’t a pastry chef and she can bake a pie.” Ouch. Point well taken.

Not that I am planning on going on Top Chef anytime soon, but it suddenly seemed that I oughta be able to make a pie. Good thing Elise is a well-known pie maker. So I schlepped the cherry-plums to her house and she taught me how to make a plum pie.

Wild plum pie
Photo by Elise Bauer

The pie crust is all Elise, but the filling is all mine. The trick to a pie filling, it seems, is to get it to set up once the pie has cooled; we cut into mine a little early, and the filling oozed over everything. No bueno. Crossing our fingers, I put the pie in the fridge overnight before cutting another slice. Success! The six tablespoons of flour in the filling did the trick.

I also tossed in some chopped walnuts — I’d wanted to use black walnuts, another native tree in the area, but couldn’t find them — as well as an odd ingredient: sage. Yes, sage. It goes well with plums, and I wanted a taste of wildness in the filling. I could barely detect it, but I’d like to think I’d notice if the sage were not in there. At last that’s my story…

So there it is: I’ve made my first pie. What do you think?

slice of wild plum pie
Photo by Elise Bauer

Now I know, you are thinking, what about that loaded wild plum tree? You making pie with that, too? Oh no, dear reader. I have a far more special purpose in mind for these plums.

Remember I said they were acidic, only mildly sweet, and a little tannic? What does that make you think of? If you guessed wine, you guessed correctly. So I am making a three-gallon batch of wild plum wine.

I’m letting the wild plums ripen a little longer, and plan to boost the sugar levels with some local honey to bring the alcohol level up to that of a normal table wine. I have high hopes for this wine; one of the finest wines I’ve ever made — and I make “real” wines now, with real wine grapes — was a burly red I made from damson plums. If I could find some here in California I’d make it again.

But this wine will be different. It will be a white. Crisp, dry, floral. Like I said, I have high hopes for these plums. But it’ll be a while before I can report on the results: Like all wines, it’ll take close to a year before I pull my first cork. Let’s hope it’s worth the wait.

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About Hank Shaw

Hey there. Welcome to Hunter Angler Gardener Cook, the internet’s largest source of recipes and know-how for wild foods. I am a chef, author, and yes, hunter, angler, gardener, forager and cook. Follow me on Instagram and on Facebook.

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  1. The light yellow plums might be Shiro Japanese plums. Please check the various sites under Shiro and you will find that the tree is vigorous and always bursting with fruits. We have one tree in our property and we have given loads of it to the Food Bank and also shared it with several Fire Dept outlets, our Police Dept. doctors, and so many friends.

    I am looking for a yellow plum liquere recipe. I have made various kinds of liquere from our raspberries, blueberries, cherries and strawberries. I had a plum liqueur recipe before but could not find it. I am used to just approximately 2 cups of sugar, plums and vodka, no more no less. Most of the recipes I found in the Internet cook the plums and that, I do not like.

    I would really appreciate your sharing a simple recipe for my plum liqueur.



  2. I am so happy to find your web page I live in Lancaster,CA when I first moved out here in “94” I noticed the beautiful burgundy trees back then, one day I looked closely and discover the cherry plums so I decided to try one and I love it! Me and my grand daughter recently we were walking and I told her about the cherry plums so she decided she wanted to try one she also love them. We came home and told her mom but her mom was so against it, and I tried to explain to my daughter in law that it wasn’t a poisonous fruit or it wasn’t harmful. So this is why I am so happy I found your page so I can let her read it and to know that this is really a wonderful new discovered fruit that anyone can enjoy! Thank you so much for creating this page.

  3. I recently bought a home and have been enjoying exploring the property. To my surprise tucked away in a shady corner I found two wild plums under a huge oak. Thanks to your post I now believe them to be a red cherry plum and the golden sugar plum. I am however now curious–would it be worth hiring an arborist to shape the trees as they are long and gangly making harvesting a bit tricky. Are there perhaps things a DIY’er can do to make harvesting easier? I would love any advice or suggestions if you all care to share.
    Please and thank you!

  4. That was hilarious ! (The part that no one knows what tree it is). You must have eaten one, late in summer, before that they are very sour (still eatable of course, as children, we even ate them when they just came out brand new, all green. Not recommended). The red wild plum usually has tons of crop, you can make jelly, chutney, vodka and what not. Shame to have it just as decoration and waste the fruit. In country of georgia, we call it Tkhemali and it is widely popular.

  5. I know, this post is a good 4 years old but I too just recently discovered that damn ornamental cherry had edible fruit, (we called them red cherry trees growing up and they are in every lawn west of the Cascades). To be honest, I didn’t even know it had fruit the first 9 years it was in my life. Then my Dad’s development put them up all over the place and fruit starts lighting up like a glowball around dusk. Then we found the purple plum tree that hangs over a neighbors fence and then I found the wild plum tree in a neglected corner of the town… lucky me!!!

  6. Have some cherry plums here in Cheshire, NW England. They’d been used as a rootstock and have grown up from the stumps of old, defunct plum trees. They flower very early so can sometimes be affected by late frosts. The flavour is delicate – like a milder cherry? These specimens are red when ripe. They make delicious jam. What more can I say? – enjoy the bounty in a good year !


  7. Help! Anyone know how I can identify the incredible ol’ plumb tree that used to grow in my Grandma’s back yard (Santa Cruz, CA)?? The fruit was Incredibly Tart and Flavorful — and Brilliant dark-pink-reddish; the skin was a dark black-purple hue. The shape was like a slightly miniature Santa Rosa Plum. NO ONE could eat them raw… but canned with a heavy sugar syrup or made into a pie, they made they most INCREDIBLE EATING EXPERIENCE!! As a teenager, I went back and canned many pints — they were Incredible over a bowl of brown rice for a quick college dormroom meal! I’VE SEARCHED & RESEARCHED FOR 20 YRS now… Even went back for a PIT – new owners had dug the tree up!

  8. Decades ago when I went up to Bangor to visit two old family friends I saw this tree full of small plums. My friends told me they were Chinese plums and had been planted by the Chinese laborers. Now know my two friend to be great story tellers and loving to pull my leg, I had my doubts. All I know is while I was there I canned dozens of quart jars of them. Now I wish I had saved some seeds too, One day hopefully I will get back up to Bangor and find a wild plum tree so I can gather some plums to can and some seeds to plant.

  9. Hi. I just found some plums like these whilst on a little path walking to the supermarket in Newcastle Upon Tyne, England. I picked one because it looked kind of edible but I wasn’t sure what it was. I brought it home and tentatively nibbled a bit and what do you know – it’s a little plum. I think I’ll go back and pick some more soon. Free food! Fabulous.

  10. …oh! also, I made homemade umeboshi with unripe ones. They came out good! The resulting ume “vinegar” is even better.

  11. The golden ones are called Mirabelles. Clear Creek Distillery makes a brandy out of them that is to DIE for.

  12. ornamental plums they call it around here – all purple, fruit & foliage – although the fruit are bigger than cherries. Saw some, asked if I could peaked, was granted permission. Lots of brown rot though, so the harvest was slim – 5 pound or so. But made wonderful ice-cream and great plum sauce.

  13. There’s an abandoned orchard up north that I used to go to as a little girl to pick sugarplums. I went to see if it was still there this year, and most of it is. No idea what the real story is, but I sure hope the original developer who bought that stretch of land came to his senses and decided to let the orchard be.

    We always missed the cherry plums (hell, had no idea they existed until this year) because the sugarplums ripen so much later. Luckily I got there early this year and got to harvest baskets and baskets of the most adorable and tasty little plums- the range of colors and flavors was astonishing. I swear the dark yellow ones actually tasted like coconut.

    Thanks for another great, seasonal post. Incidentally, since you mention walnuts, do you know of any good green walnut recipes other than nocino, vin de noix, or pickled walnuts? I feel like there must be a whole world of possibilities, and you’d be the person to answer “Oh sure, here are these 15 recipes I have up my sleeve”!

  14. Adding to my list of neighborhood foraging outings. I just love the “frost” on plums, it makes for lovely photos.

  15. Here is something: I saw those pretty golden plums on your site last week. They were very unusual looking and they look delicious. So I go to a smallish, locally-owned supermarket here in Lancaster, PA this weekend…and there they were. They were being marketed as “sugar plums” and also as being locally grown. They were delicate and very sweet in flavor, and had an astringent tartness around the skin. By far, the most delicious plums that I have eaten. I probably would have passed right by them if I had not seen them here…so thank you!

  16. I just dropped by looking for some culinary inspiration to make use of a harvest of sour cherries – you’re now my first stop online for a recipe – and saw this post. I might use your cherry plum pie recipe and sub the sour cherries. Would the sage still be the right flavor, or would you suggest something else?

    We also have the cherry plums here. We forage for them and they’re not uncommon in hedgerows, but still a treasure when you find a treeful of fruits. I put them in jam, though many people make a liquer from them. Ours never ripen past red before they drop to the ground – we haven’t got the heat or sunshine. I wonder if they’re sweeter ripened to that deep purple.

  17. Plum wine is a fine thing. Being broke this year really cut into the proper wine budget, but I’ve been surprised how well the little summery plum wine I threw together last year, and the cider, have compensated. I think I ran it up to about 10% alcohol, in cane sugar. Macerated on the stones for about a week. No boiling, no added yeast. This year, though, I’m curious to make it up more like a farm-house cider: just macerate, squeeze, and carboy. Ever tried it like that?

    Never tried it that way, but you’ll need to chop the plums to macerate properly. I also never recommend wild yeasts — too chancy, especially when good wine yeast is inexpensive. ~Hank

  18. Our Japanese neighbors bring these yellow plums to us and call them Japanese plums. I don’t know the Latin for them though, but I’m pretty positive they are from Asia. They sure are delicious!

  19. Any tips on making the liqueur? I just checked out your elderberry liqueur recipe and noted that you added lemon rind there.

    Just use the elderberry recipe, but leave out the lemon rind. Plums are acidic enough ~Hank