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The ManyTracks Orchard

Plums and Chums


plum trees in full bloom


Prolific in Bloom, Independent in Tree Shape,
Picky in Pollination, a Challenge in the North,
and so Nice when they Fruit!

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  Mont Royal


  Sapalta Chum

  South Dakota



 My first plums were cherry plums (chums), planted in 1990. That first Sapalta lived to the ripe old age of 24 which is quite unusual for a chum, giving us sporadic but generous harvests of its rich dark purple fruit. Its companion Oka introduced me to one of the challenges of growing fruit in the north. It fruited but the fruit never matured, it needed a longer season, so I took it out.

A few years later a friend dug up one of a multitude of suckers growing around his vegetable field, a red plum he didn't have a name for. I didn't really have a place for it so "temporarily" stuck it in a garden plot where, with the rich garden soil, it grew vigorously and produced a great crop of red plums for several years. Wonderful! The next year the too-fast-growing and not well pruned tree split in half. We cut it down and discovered another attribute of many plums - they sucker prolifically. Many, many years later the root suckers of this plum continued to pop up.

Over the next years I added more plums, and learned about pollination. The solution often advised is to add even more plums, which I did. But there is much more to that pollination story (see below) - it depends on what varieties you have and what varieties you add, something I am just now (2019) solving in my orchard. I love the beauty of these trees, their resilience in spite of leaf blights and canker, winter injury, frosted blossoms, and a human that keeps mowing down all its joyously produced suckers which, if I had paid attention and let some of those grow and fruit years ago, would have helped it to pollinate and possibly produce fruit. Most of my purchased plum trees are grafted on American Plum rootstock which was what was suckering, and whose pollen my Japanese hybrid varieties needed.

I'm still growing plums. When they do give forth fruit, it is beautiful and delicious -- eaten fresh, in sauce, in jam, in wine. So far it's a worthwhile partnership with an interesting tree.

POLLINATION - This has proven to be a tricky thing with the hybrids that I grow. It's isn't a new dilemma. I came across a 1951 publication from the University of Minnesota, "Pollination Studies With Stone Fruits" by Alderman and Weir. In the introduction they state:

"...Little was known, however, about the large amount of cross sterility or incompatibility that exists between varieties of these fruits until about 1920 to 1930 when hybrid plums and cherry-plums were planted extensively in Minnesota and nearby states. The problem assumed serious aspects in Minnesota when commercial plantings of the large fruited hybrid plums reached bearing age and failed to set satisfactory crops in spite of profuse bloom."

In 1938 the University's Agricultural Experiment Station began an impressive 21 year study and this publication reports their results. Here is a link to the publication:

To me the important piece in that publication (though it is all very good) is in this paragraph:

"From a study of table 3 it becomes apparent that varieties of native American species are good pollinizers almost without exception. Furthermore, it shows that a preponderance of good pollinizers is found in hybrids in which native species appear as female parents."     [included in the latter are Kaga, South Dakota, and Toka].

This summer the newsletter of the Canada DGB Fruit Growers Group had an article by Thean Phey on Plum Pollination. It doesn’t give any easy answers, no answers really, but it is interesting and adds a bit more to consider. The plum article is down the page below the Budding and Grafting one.

My own experience over almost 30 yrs with various number of hybrid plums but no American Plums flowering was only two years with a somewhat reasonable plum crop.  Those years also had a Pembina blossoming, and one year Kaga. Unfortunately the Pembina died a few years ago. Many of those years of lack of crop was likely due to untimely (for fruit) frost and freezes. And I often did get a scattering of fruit, and the Sapalta Chum often had good harvests.

Last year (2018) my plums were as they have been -- great bloom, few fruit. This year (2019) I had for the first time a few blossoms on two of my young AmeriPlums (14 and 7 to be exact) and a few on a South Dakota graft. Plus a decent bloom on Kaga. Everything else blossomed in thick profusion. Pollinators overall were scarce except bumblebees but they were plentiful and busy in the blooms. I didn’t expect much if any fruit. But to my surprise I got 43 plums off my oldest Gracious (plus 5 LaCrescent, 2 Underwood, and a lone first fruit from a young Grenville). Sapalta also had a dozen fruit. Not a lot to be sure but this is the most I’ve seen since the Pembina died four years ago. Not a for sure conclusion but it does implicate the AmeriPlums, maybe Kaga though that one has bloomed before without resulting in much fruit. It will be interesting to see what happens this coming year. I'm hoping there will be a larger AmeriPlum bloom.

On the Sapalta chums the years of excellent harvest were when I also had an unknown seedling chum flowering or the early unknown red plum, a sucker from a friend that was around for a few years.

No easy conclusions to be had but I continue hopeful. Others are finding the American Plums to be the key to their hybrid plums fruiting and I expect that may likely be the case in my orchard. Meantime, the plums, even without fruit, are a beautiful tree.

2022 - May 20 older plums in full bloom (except So Dakota and Alderman). Plums 1 & 2 and Euro's plus new growth on others just starting. Freeze (26 deg) 23 & 24. There was a little hope. Most plums petal drop May 27. But early June I saw a scattering of fruitlets on Gracious, a few on Waneta, and couple on Granville. Plus a few on widespread Sapalta chums in the field orchards. They are a long way from the main orchard plums so I have to guess they are somewhat self pollinating? End of August cut down old Gracious, just not worth it for this older but challenging tree. I'm not sure plums are a practical part of this orchard. 

2021 - Another "unusually hot, unusually early", also dry, spring. Great blossoming 5/18 - 5/21 on all. Beautiful Hope! Then 5/27 came 4 nights of 22 - 28 . Again, double sigh ... There were a few later blooms and I harvested a half dozen or so Gracious.

I decided to cut down the ten year old Tri-plum -- Underwood, LaCrescent, Gracious -- our first grafts, on a seedling cherry-plum. The large plums grafts overgrew the small chum rootstock, with knobs and cracks and broken limbs. And I was tired of arguing with the aggressive ants and their aphids. I tried grafts of the first two twice onto suckers but they didn't take. It was time to take the tree out. It does give more air circulation for the other plums, and Steve saved the trunk for spoon carving.

I also decided to take out all the Sapalta cherry-plums, a long line of sucker plants north of the garden. I was tired of weeding them out of the nearby blueberries. I have a few growing out in the field where they can sucker all they want (but they don't). Maybe they will produce some day. It feels better with that area cleared.

2020 - Unusually hot unusually early, all blooms going from bud to full open fast. 5/26 most all plums in full bloom, even some on the young ones. Chums, Alderman, SoDakota, Euro's 4 days later, some blooms on the American plums. High hopes. Then 5/31 came a 25 deg freeze. A few fruit managed to ripen on Gracious, one Alderman. Sigh... I'm about ready to give up on plums. Maybe I should just consider them an ornamental!

2019 - Full Beautiful Bloom 5/30 - on all regular plums including Kaga. A few buds on east Ameriplums, and South Dakota but they aren't open yet. Not a lot of pollinators around, but a few, mostly bumblebees. Gracious tree is so full and thick of blossoms I can’t see leaves or branches. All beautiful. 6/1 The Ameriplums at the house are full of blossoms. The chums haven't yet.

June 3, 2019 -- Faith, Hope, and Enjoying what Comes

plums in bloomWe woke up to a very cool 24 degrees in the orchard this morning (hopefully our last frost) but the plums made it clear a little chill wasn't going to dampen their spirits! They are ready for the ball and doing their best to entice the pollinators to their flower dance. Every year I see this display and think - maybe this year, maybe this year the story will continue on to a happy full harvest of fruit ending. And maybe this WILL be the year! Unfortunately, these are all Japanese hybrid varieties, very good eating, but it has been discovered that these don't care to pollinate each other, bees or not, and even though I have six different varieties, plenty one would think for cross pollination, they prefer something more. And that something is a wild (American) plum. Well, I now have a number of wild plums coming along nicely but they are not quite old enough to bloom yet. There are a few other varieties that have been found to pollinate the Japanese hybrids and one of those, South Dakota, we grafted onto a branch of one of the younger trees two years ago. It grew well (plums are enthusiastic growers) and this year put out a half dozen blossoms! Not many but maybe enough to do at least a minor job? It will be a bit before I'll know but I have my fingers crossed. Because of the cool weather there aren't a lot of pollinators out and about but we've had a few sunny days recently and I have seen and heard a small contingent in the blossoms so I'm hopeful. It sure would be nice to get more than a handful of plums from the many plum trees.

Now we do actually have a really nice, beautiful 30 some year old American plum, right outside the back window of the house. And it has two beautiful offspring alongside it. (It would happily have a couple dozen more if I'd let it.) All three are in full bloom this year as well, pleasing us wonderfully. But they've never set fruit since they, apparently, need somebody else for cross pollination. Plums (like people?) can be very picky. If the two patches, one at the house, one in the orchard, could get together I'm guessing fruit would likely result. But they are about 350 feet apart with a small but tall woods between, which apparently is too much of a barrier for the pollinators to do the job that needs to be done.

So we admire the prolific display of blossoms in their time, appreciate the leafy season, enjoy the interesting tree shapes in the winter, and look forward, ever hopeful, to someday a bountiful harvest of fruit. Even a moderate crop would make this orchardist very happy.

9/7-20 ripe fruit!!  Not a lot but more than has been. 75 total from all (3 trees).  Not a lot to be sure, but there's hope. Next year should be a stronger year for blossoms from the orchard american plums.

Copyright Susan Robishaw

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