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What Is a Wild Plum?

By Lumara Lee
Updated May 16, 2024
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The wild plum, or prunus Americana, is known as the American plum and is indigenous to North America. These deciduous trees grow wild in the central and eastern portions of the United States. They produce a sweet fruit enjoyed by both wildlife and people. The wild plum can be grown either as a shrub with many trunks or as a tree with a single trunk. When left to grow wild, the American plum often forms thickets with thorns up to 3 inches (7.6 cm) long.

Its ability to bear tasty fruit isn’t the only quality that makes the wild plum a desirable plant for the landscape. The wild plum is also an ornamental that can provide an attractive privacy screen during the warmer months. Clusters of white flowers appear in early spring, followed by red or yellow fruit. In the fall, the leaves turn yellow or red, and after the leaves fall the attractive reddish brown color of the branches can be seen.

The wild plum can grow up to 25 feet (7.6 m) high with a spread of 20 feet (6 m). In shrub form they are shorter, reaching a height of no more than 15 to 20 feet (4.5 to 6 m). Their leaves are 3 to 4 inches (7.6 to 10 cm) long and shiny green on the top with hairy undersides. Wild plums are winter hardy and can be found growing along roadsides and riverbanks, in woodlands, abandoned pastures, and prairies. Its fruit is much smaller than the plums commonly seen in grocery stores, generally attaining a diameter of approximately 1 inch (2.5 cm).

Wild plums are easy to grow from seeds. They tolerate dry conditions and require little to no maintenance in order to thrive and spread when grown in their native habitat. The shrub provides cover for birds and other wildlife, and is food for many animals including deer, squirrels, bears, raccoons, and birds. Its small, sweet plums make tasty jams and jellies.

In spite of its edible fruit and use as an ornamental, the wild plum can pose a challenge for the gardener who grows it in a small yard. It can be invasive and needs to be pruned and cut back regularly when grown in a limited space. The wild plum can sprout suckers up to 25 feet (7.6 m) from the parent plant and can form thorny thickets in a short amount of time. With proper maintenance, however, the wild plum can be an attractive plant for the landscape and a reliable source of delicious fruit.

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Discussion Comments

By fify — On Jan 25, 2015

@discographer-- Are you sure that they were ripe?

It's true that all wild plums aren't the same. Some are best eaten fresh, while others are preserved. It's also possible that it may be unsuitable to eat due to the variety or the weather conditions.

It's also possible that they're not quite ripe yet. Although wild plums may not become a very dark red, they should be pink or at least slightly red. That's how I know they're ripe. I don't pick them when they're still yellow.

I recommend trying again when the plums have ripened entirely. Don't be disheartened.

By discographer — On Jan 25, 2015

@bear78-- We moved recently and I was very happy to discover wild plums near our home. I picked them to make jelly but unfortunately, it didn't work. They didn't look or taste great and there wasn't much juice. I'm not sure where I went wrong. They looked so nice on the shrubs, nice and yellow. But I guess there are different varieties out there and they aren't all suitable for eating or preserving.

By bear78 — On Jan 24, 2015

Wild plums are my favorite. They are small and since they are wild and untreated with pesticides, they can have spots. But when ripe, they are perfectly sweet. They make great plum jelly and other preserves.

There are years when the plums don't turn out too great. The harvest can be unpredictable since they grow wild. But last year, we had an especially juicy batch and I actually froze the juice which I later used in other preserves and desserts.

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