The sweetest, the wildest of all summer fruit, plums grow everywhere. Planted by birds and pit-spitting children, plum trees sprout beside fields and beaches and come in colors as varied as rosebuds— pinks and purples, golds and scarlets.
A plum for everyone.
Two hundred to three hundred varieties of plums are grown in the United States today. An enormous number of these have appeared, disappeared, then reappeared “improved” or crossbred. One suspects it’s a little like dog breeding. The growers aren’t always looking for qualities that you and I covet. Good pollination and heavy yields, understandably top priorities for growers, might not be what the rest of us like best about a plum. How about flavor, for instance? But in the mêlée, some delicious varieties have emerged, and more are appearing or reappearing all the time.
My favorite plum is the Santa Rosa. Friends swear by Elephant Heart. The green, teardrop-shaped Wickson has gorgeous golden flesh. But don’t overlook an old backyard plum tree or a farmstand near your home that has delicious plums simply named Burt’s Best or Aunt Mae’s.
Plums ripen from June through August. Most commercially grown plums are from California, but Georgia, Idaho, Michigan, South Carolina, and states in the Northwest also ship plums across the country.
Choose a plumb that's heavy and not too soft
To find a ripe plum, hold one in the palm of your hand. It should feel heavy. There should be some give, particularly at the blossom end (opposite the stem end). If the plum is too soft, it’s probably overripe.
Hard plums will soften a little in a brown paper bag at room temperature within two days. But plums won’t sweeten appreciably after they’re picked: the sugars must develop on the tree. When the fruit is severed from the branch, a chemical reaction is triggered that breaks down the fruit’s acids and changes the acid-sugar balance of the fruit. The plum seems to taste sweeter because of the reduced acid.
Ripe plums will probably cost more than plums picked too green. Pay the price, and then eat your fill before the short season is over. Plum seasons are ephemeral, three to four weeks at most. You find one variety you like, and then all too soon it’s gone and the next variety arrives. (By the way, don’t accept “I don’t know” or “Just plums, lady” as a varietal name. By law, the names of both the variety and the packer must be plainly printed on the box in which the fruit is shipped.)
I go to our best produce store, buy one of each kind of plum, taste them all, and then buy a few pounds of the ones I like best. Ten days later, there’s a new array to try. Farmers’ markets sometimes offer a taste. My produce man will often cut a plum for me to try.