Stalking the wild beach plum

Wayne Marshall/Flickr

Wayne Marshall/Flickr

Walled in, paved over and built up, the Jersey Shore may seem totally conquered – at least until a major storm hits. But you can still find pockets of the old shore, a place of empty dunes and lonely inlets where hidden bounty waits if you know where to look.

It isn’t just the sea and bays that yield a wild catch of fish, clams and crabs. All three of our native coastal fruits still thrive along the sandy seashore and the acid bogs, hidden among the brambles, dune grass and poison ivy.

Cranberries and blueberries have been domesticated and improved, and now are mass-produced for national markets. The beach plum alone is still largely untamed, although plant researchers eying its potential are trying to change that.

The beach plum (Prunus maritima) is a multi-stemmed shrub or small tree that thrives in a harsh environment of salt spray, infertile sand and stormy weather along the coast from Maine to Maryland. In May, it produces a copious froth of white flowers, so conspicuous that aerial surveys can pinpoint colonies by tracking the blossoms.

In late August or early September, soft fruits about as big around as a quarter ripen along the branches. By and large, you wouldn’t pop a raw one into your mouth. Most are tart as a raw cranberry and used mainly for jams, jellies, sauces and wines.

Beach plums aren’t sweet by nature but are much loved anyway, with an affection reserved for wild things that have stubbornly persisted against all odds. New England may clamor for the attention, but our shore has claimed the beach plum as the official fruit of Cape May County, has an association working to promote its virtues and holds an annual beach plum festival at Island Beach State Park every fall (Sept. 11 this year at Bathing Beach #1; see Friends of Island Beach State Park for more).

Don’t think that you can head off over the dunes like a modern-day Euell Gibbons in search of wild edibles. Most of the beach plum stands are in wildlife refuge areas or on public beaches where trampling the dunes is strictly prohibited.

“There’s just not that much informal picking allowed,” says Jenny Carleo, agricultural and resource management agent for the Rutgers Cooperative Extension Service in Cape May.

Wild beach plums bear erratically, anyway, and it’s easier to get a taste of the shore by visiting one of a dozen or more commercial growers listed on the website of the Cape May Beach Plum Association (See “Products” at cmcbeachplum.com)

Ellen F/Flickr

Ellen F/Flickr

The association, extension Service, state Department of Agriculture and the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) are partners in a new push to refine from wild stock beach plum cultivars especially suited to dune preservation, horticultural use and specialty crop production.

A $40,000 state grant awarded in 2014 is funding some new initiatives. The NRCS is primarily focused on dune restoration and hopes to follow up on its release in 1992 of a named cultivar, ‘Ocean View,’ which is especially well suited to stabilization of shifting sands and as a wildlife food source.

Experimental extension orchards in Cape May county and Cream Ridge (part of Jackson Township) are working on sterile ornamentals that sacrifice fruit production for more prominent flowers – a development that could make the beach plum a desirable landscape plant for seashore locations. The project to develop a sweeter, more reliably productive beach plum has been largely in the hands of the young.

JoAnn Sopchak, an agriscience teacher at Cape May Technical School, has had her students at work cloning beach plums that local farmers have identified as bearing fruit larger and sweeter than average. The idea is to work patiently toward a beach plum that could be eaten fresh, much like a Damson or Italian plum.

The future of beach plum cultivation as a specialty crop seems brighter than ever. Plant scientists all along the East Coast consider themselves champions of this wild fruit “on the cusp of agriculture,” and are trying to unravel its secrets. In test orchards they are using trellising, fertilizer regimens, selective pruning and plant breeding techniques in the effort to build a better beach plum.

Meanwhile, there’s a certain thrill to spotting the original, wayward beach plum in its native habitat. Half-buried by drifting sand, baked by the sun, twisted and stunted by salt-laden storms, it remains undaunted, an unchanged icon of endurance at our windswept shore.