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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52 Comments

  1. I believe the cherry plum trees you are seeing in the area are Thundercloud Purple Leaf Plum tree. We are in Placer County, not far from the places you mention. We have three on our property and harvest them annually. We eat them raw and also can them into jams and jellies.

  2. Here in Oklahoma we make jelly out of our wild plums. When they ripen these plums are red. These make the prettiest rose colored jelly.

  3. Thank you! I have three different types of wild plum trees and love them. Two out of three are very big and give tons of plums. The largest tree puts out the yellow round plums which if you leave them on the tree a little longer, they become very meaty and sweet. Most mornings you kind find me at the end of our garden up on a ladder picking my breakfast! Thanks for the recipe for pie. I will try it.

  4. The small purple plums are some kind of ornamental plum tree sold to residential customers. Seattle is full of them and they tend to be in the strips between the sidewalk and the street- no technically private property. I’ve made chutney with them but this year will go for the plum liquor. The green ones at the top of your post could be green Methleys. Green gage and Shiro are more ovoid.

  5. How about this…I called an arborist to get my cherry plum cut back and he told me there was no such thing…it was a cherry tree or a plum tree. I didn’t argue but remember looking it up years ago because it’s in my back yard and wanted to see if fruit was edible. I’ve love to send him this link, maybe I will just let it go and let him believe what he will Technically we are both right.

  6. We have this tree in our front yard. Until today I didn’t know what it was until my grands were interested in eating from it. I searched to make sure they wouldn’t be poisoned on my watch and came upon your site. It was very helpful!! thanks!! LJ

  7. I did guess wine. However, I make wine too so I was catching on to the qualities of the fruit your were indicating there. Putting “acidic” up front was the give-away but I’m sure that was deliberate on your part. I’m currently doing mulberry, blackberry, red and black raspberry, and strawberry wines all from my wee backyard. Interestingly, only the red raspberries and strawberries were introduced by me. The others were here on their own and all I do is let them propagate. I was really surprised to find a black raspberry on the property though. I recently found a productive muscadine vine too and am currently taming it down and hope to start getting fruit off it in the next couple years. For now, its a mammoth wild vine all up in the trees and clambering all over the fence.

  8. Oh my gosh! I was on a hunt for leaves with my kids so they could find the differences and similarities and came across my neighbors tree that had these little cherry looking fruit on them. I took a bite and thought it was super good but decided not to eat any more just in case they were poisonous. To my pleasure I found this post. Yay! The house has recently just sold and is empty so I’m going to go scavenge for more heheheh. Thanks for the post!

  9. Hi from Brooklyn NY! My next-door neighbor has one of these trees and for years we all ignored it and its fruit figuring it’s poisonous. Earlier today I saw a woman walk by, pick a cherry, eat it, and keep walking (maybe she died later, I’ll never know). Later today I saw a truck full of Mexican gardeners stop, pick and eat from the tree, and keep driving (maybe they died too). Hey, I thought, it’s time to check the internet for an answer. Thank you honest-food, I tasted a cherry, and didn’t die. It definitely seems plum-ish, and is very sour with a hint of sweet. Would definitely make a nice pie or jam. 😀

  10. The cherry plums are going bonkers here in Santa Clara County with rain followed by heat. I made a French fruit custard with a quart picked from street trees.

    We had two other varieties in Arcata growing by the roadside. For a week or two, I could snack on them walking to campus.

  11. Just picked my cherry plumbs as the native Australian birds love them and I have kept them away by hanging silver tinsel on the tree. I bought the tree as a decorative tree and then it produced fruit which I thought would be hard and sour.l tried eating one and found out they are surpurb tasting more like a cherry than a plumb .If you have one producing fruit ,I have just picked 50 + from a tree planted 14 months ago ,treasure it .