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  • Ian Thompson

Continuing an Ancient Harvest

It’s one of our favorite seasons at Nan Awaya Farm: the sand plum harvest is upon us! These colorful gems of bold, native flavor can’t be found in any grocery store that I know about. They can only be gotten by going out and hand-gathering them in the sand plum thickets growing on prairie remnants or along the roadsides across a broad swath of the country.

Amy’s family introduced me to this amazing native fruit on one of my first visits to their house shortly after she and I had met. On the edge of Amy’s grandmother’s trust land was a grove of short-statured plum trees bearing quarter-sized red and orange fruits. Amy and her mom taught me how to find the ripe ones - you can feel the surface of the plum give a little bit when you gently pinch the fruit between a thumb and forefinger. Over the course of that weekend, Amy and I filled grocery sacks up with them, picking from the trees and gathering from the ground underneath where the wind had already dropped the ripest ones for us.

A lot of people in our area think of sand plums in connection with home made jelly. That’s fine, but to me adding in all of that sugar diminishes their taste, not to mention their natural health benefit. Good sand plums have an amazing and diverse flavor all on their own. Fruits toward the riper end of the spectrum have a taste similar to a red plum from the grocery store, but often with a sweet, candy-like bouquet. Personally, my favorite sand plum flavor lies more toward the opposite end of the ripeness spectrum, where the sour exceeds the sweet.

The fruits from sand plum trees (Prunus angustifolia), also known as the Chickasaw plum, have been eaten as long as there have been humans living on this continent. They're a part of the traditional foodways of Tribes spanning from peninsular Florida to the High Plains of southeastern Colorado. The original Choctaw word for native plums, including the sand plum is takkon. Through time, that name has changed to accommodate similar fruits that arrived with colonization. For example, the Choctaw word takkon today refers to the peach, which was originally introduced by the Spanish conquistadors. Taklushi (literally “little peach) is the Choctaw name for the domesticated plum available in groceries stores - some varieties of which were created by crossing native plums with plums from Europe. Today, the sand plum bears the cumbersome Choctaw name issi italkushi (literally the “deer’s little peach”). This phenomenon - things introduced by colonization displacing the original native names for native things is known as "linguistic reversal". Interestingly, linguistic reversals have happened with at least 16 other Tribes' names for wild plum.

We had a few small groves of wild sand plums on our starter farm, but we made our huge front yard into an orchard. We planted about five dozen sand plum trees in evenly spaced rows as its core. Never heard of a sand plum orchard? At the time, we hadn't either, but we later learned that sand plum trees were planted at George Washington’s Mount Vernon estate. They were also planted at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello estate in eight different locations. They continue to be the healthiest plants growing on that property more than 200 years later. We enjoyed the fruit from our sand plum orchard. We let any passers by who asked us pick. We took amusement from the creative stories spun by strangers who pulled up to pick them without permission and got caught literally standing in our front yard. They could have some too-if they didn't just run off.

At Nan Away Farm, there’s no need to plant a sand plum orchard. A number of groves were already here on the land when we bought it. We've let most of them grow. It's worth giving up an acre or so in total for them because of their produce as well as their ecological importance. Sand plum thickets provide cover for mocking birds, bobwhites, and thrashers. In the spring, the sweet-smelling nectar of their white flowers draws in swarms of pollinators. Right now, the ground under the plum trees is almost bare from the traffic of all the deer, raccoons, skunks, coyotes, and probably many other creatures carrying on their own ancient harvest of the fallen fruit. Sand plum groves are also a host for the admiral, swallowtail, and hairstreak butterflies.

The sand plum groves at Nan Awaya produce fruit of three different kinds. Two of our groves (my favorites) produce oblong, pinkish-orange fruits with a sweet/tart taste. Other groves produce more bitter fruits that become palatable only after they ripen to a deep red, literally hours before they fall off the tree. Some patches of this latter group stay on the bitter side even at full ripeness - We don't pick too much from those. We've also got two big patches that produce larger, round, yellow plums whose flavor has quite a bit in common with red plums at the grocery store.

Last year and the year before, late frosts destroyed most of the sand plum crop at Nan Awaya. This year, the conditions have been right for both production and flavor to be at their best. Today, we'll harvest in the cool morning before a blistering afternoon. We'll soak the harvest in water for around half an hour. Any plums that float will go to the compost bucket. The rest will be thoroughly rinsed. Then, we'll lay them out on cooking pans, and into the freezer they will go. Once they’re frozen solid, we’ll take them off the trays and seal them in freezer bags. Combined with what we picked earlier in the week, today's harvest should give us about 20 quarts put away to enjoy over the coming year.

On a hot day, for me there is nothing - ice cream, snow cones, fresh squeezed lemonade, nothing - better than a handful of frozen sand plums. You bite off the solid, flavorful fruit and then twirl the cool, sour pit around and around in your mouth. Pitted, frozen sand plums mixed with some milk, Truvia, vanilla, and run through a blender, also make a really fine Sweetart-flavored frozen smoothie. We both enjoy feasting on all different types of frozen fruit from the grocery store. Yet, none of them are quite the same as wild-harvested sand plums, right off the land where we live.

If you enjoy tart cherries, Skittles, or Tear Jerkers candy, you might just enjoy sand plums too!

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Jun 12, 2022

My family and I have loved sand plums. My grand mother use to make jelly from them. After she passed we are now trying to pick up this tradition and are also using what my family have called mustang grapes and possum grapes that we find on our great grandmothers allotted land by the river. They won’t be ripe till late summer. Thank you so much for this sandplum story. There are a lot of people missing out on this scrumptious fruit.

Ian Thompson
Jun 12, 2022
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Thanks for sharing, Nancy! I bet you guys have tasty plums out your way. I don't know if it's just random chance, but it seems like those I've picked out west almost always have a great flavor. Mustang grapes and possum grapes are awesome too!

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