Early-bird beach plums


This spring the beach plum blossoms were magnificent. The tops of the dunes near our house in Lambert’s Cove were a haze of peachy white. Every branch of every beach plum shrub was laden with flowers that seemed to bloom on and on. There was a chance this would be a good year for beach plums, but ample blossoms are never a guarantee of plentiful fruit. No matter how many flowers there are, if the bees aren’t there to pollinate them, the fruit crop is meager.

Through the summer I’ve kept a close eye on the beach plum growth. In June, the bushes were covered with lots of green fruit. Then we had a long period without rain and it seemed the fruit might not ripen. In the last two weeks, however, the fruit rapidly changed from green to red and purple. Each day brings changes. The fruit is ripe and abundant now.

A late summer fruit, beach plums are never ripe in early August. I associate picking them with Labor Day and the start of school. Last week,I refused to believe my eyes because the timing is so off. I needed to see someone carrying a full bucket of beach plums down the beach path to knock some sense in me.

“Plum Crazy: A Book about Beach Plums” by Elizabeth Post Mirel first published in 1973 is my source for information about this native species. This charming book is a compendium of beach plum information and lore that includes botany, history, recipes, beauty products, even information about whittling with beach plum wood and making liquors.

Mirel states clearly: “The beach plum ripens from late August to early October. It can be small as a pea or as large as a crabapple. The color of the ripe fruit ranges from red to purple to black and even includes yellow. Take your pick.”

This year, beach plums are ripe at least three weeks early. Hopefully this is an oddity and not yet another indicator of global warming. Would I worry about their premature ripeness and abundance or begin picking? I decided to pick.

This morning after swimming I filled my beach towel full of the luscious fruit. The voices and barks of early beach-goers were just over the dune, but I harvested undetected and undisturbed. Squatting in the sand, I took my time and savored the secret pleasure of picking beach plums all alone.

Part of the enjoyment in gathering beach plums lies deep in my Yankee roots — it is the satisfaction of gathering something wild and free, especially if you have to work at it a bit. Another part of the enjoyment is pure magic — the wonder that a fruit so densely flavorful and tart can emerge out of sand.

Harvesting is easy as long as you avoid the poison ivy that likes to grow in and among the beach plum bushes. The hard work comes later with pitting, boiling, and transforming these firm fruits into a jelly, jam, or some other delectable treat. I don’t have time to do that work right now, and the good news is I don’t have to because beach plums can be frozen whole in freezer bags. I can devote the time I have now for picking.

I’ve heard that apples are ripening early too. When I have a chance to gather some I’ll make Mirel’s Sunset Applesauce, but tonight I’ll simply enjoy the sunset.

Sunset Applesauce

6 tart apples, cored and sliced
1 cup pitted beach plums
1 cup sugar
1/2 cup water

Simmer the ingredients in a large saucepan for 30 minutes or until the fruit is soft, stirring occasionally. Force through a food mill or coarse strainer.Chill. Serve alone or with plain cake.

Makes about 4 cups or 12 servings.