Plum of the Dunes
Stretching along the Eastern coastline from the Canadian Maritimes to Maryland, a wild plum has long been a natural habitat staple and a provider of fruit for homemade jams, jellies, and aperitifs. This wild and hardy shrub—known as the beach plum—thrives in many coastal locales and is a vital member of coastal ecology. It serves as a mainstay in the natural world, bringing beauty, stability, and nourishment to wildlife. Though it typically produces a robust harvest of savory pitted fruit, the beach plum yield (of course) is not guaranteed. There may be a “gap” year or a sharp decline in fruit during severe drought.
Related to the cherry and peach, the Prunus maritima shrub roots in porous and loose sands. In early summer, the plum presents a blush of pink and white sprays. Enduring sweltering summer heat, torrential rainfalls, and scorching sun, the beach plum comes into its own in late summer. It’s then, after many weeks of generating small fruit by the thousands, that the green plums turn dusty red and purple—something that seemed magical to me, as a young girl.
We were blessed, in the late 1960s, to have scores of beach plums close by my home in Lewes and in nearby Rehoboth. Although landscape practices and residential development have resulted in moderate loss, many of the shrubs have been spared, and are being tended by residents and officials. Those efforts are helped along by the hardy shrub’s ability to regenerate naturally by lateral “shoots” in the sand.
These days, when the plums ripen, I ride up and down Lewes Beach or step a few paces into the dunes to find fruiting shrubs. In 2021 alone, my mother and I harvested 100 pounds of plums.
But—what to do with all that bounty?! One option: a homemade jam or dessert aperitif. Another: home-freezing the plums. Both approaches have been traditions in my family for generations, as they have been in many families.
For many years I have been making and selling beach plum products. And with the support of two local businesses, my homemade jam satisfies many people’s nostalgic desire for that taste of the coast. Once they spot the dusty purple plums each late-summer season, my neighbors wait with eager anticipation for the harvest and a few jars of jam or an aperitif for ice cream.
Making just one batch requires several pounds of beach plums, a heap of sugar, and lemon. Separating the pits (also known as stones) is no small chore, but—aided by a Chinois French fruit press—I spend hours pressing the rich juice and pulp. I make a jam chock full of the meat of the plum. Boiling, blending, and sealing brings the final product to a heat-tempered canning jar and…another batch of beach plum jam is complete!
We were taught to make preserves and to home-can as children, by my grandmother, Frances, and my mother, JR Sr. I carry on this tradition and am so grateful for the lessons. The substantial effort of harvesting and preserving the beach plums is repaid a hundred-fold each time I open a frozen packet or twist the lid off a jar of jam.▼
JuneRose (JR) Futcher is a native of Delaware, an award-winning photographer, and a community and arts activist.