Chickasaw Plum (Prunus angustifolia) is a favorite North American shrub, widely admired for its vigorous bloom of tiny white, fragrant flowers. The spring blooms, which can sometimes be spectacular, are enhanced through several inherent characteristics of the plant. The root systems are known for extensive suckering, meaning that new plants or shoots spring up from the roots and eventually grow into tight thickets. In addition, the flowers bloom before the leaves come out, giving direct lines of sight through the branches.
The photograph that follows illustrates the appearance in late bloom, as the leaves are beginning to open and the flowers are loosing petals.
Chickasaw Plum flowers also bloom in compact clusters, which places more flowers in the visual field. See below.
A closer view of individual flowers, which are very small – less than 1/2 inch across. In the Piedmont of North Carolina, the flowers bloom during the last week of March into the first week of April with some variation.
The buds are small, with a reddish brown color. In the second photo below, a grayish or bluish bark exfoliation can be seen on top of the twig – best viewed under some magnification. The buds begin to swell in late February – early March.
The bark is very distinctive , often black in older shrubs, with numerous horizontal lenticels. Younger trunks and the upper branches of older shrubs are usually dark brown.
The fruit, which ripens in mid June, is usually red but can also be yellow. The fruit is smaller than horticultural plums, about the size of a large cherry.
Although Chickasaw Plum is definitely a North American native, it is probably introduced into North Carolina and the Southeast. Here is a quote from John Bartram, a famous early American botanist, which appeared on Chickasaw.net : Bartram wrote of the Chickasaw plum: “The Chickasaw plumb I think must be accepted, for though certainly a native of America, yet I never saw it wild in the forests, but always in old deserted Indian plantations. I suppose it to have been brought from the (southwest) beyond the Mississippi, by the Chickasaws.”
Here is a more specific description of its origins in an excerpt from an 1895 paper by Dr. V. Havard.* ” …The chickasaw plum of the south is regarded by Prof. Sargent as native of the eastern slopes of the southern Rocky Mountains and of the plateaus extending thence to the Mississippi, and as having been introduced by the Indians (Chickasaw?) into the southern Atlantic States where it soon became extensively naturalized. ‘
Chickasaw Plum in Wake County, North Carolina
In spite of high population density and intensive, unbridled development , small populations of Chickasaw Plum still survive in Wake County, mostly in the Eastern part on sandy soils. Very small, remnant populations can also be found in the Falls Lake area, particularly along roadsides and in plantings established by hunters to attract game animals.
If you are interested in seeing Chickasaw Plums blooming, there are several sites, open to the public, where they can be seen in full bloom in the last week of March/first week of April approximately. Turnipseed Nature Preserve has a nice thicket along the Lupine Loop trail. Probably the largest population is on the Triangle Land Conservancy’s Bailey and Sarah Williamson Preserve, near the southern part of the Two Pond Loop.
- Dr. V. Havard, US Army, “Food Plants of the North American Indians” Bulletin of the Torrey Botanical Club, Vol 22, No 3, (Mar. 27, 1895) pp 98-123. Available as a PDF
Lovely images and a compelling tale of a most excellent plant. Why is this not inn nurseries?
Thank you for your comments. Chickasaw Plum is available for sale on line, especially from nurseries that specialize in native plants. Most of them are in the form of seedlings.
Wild plums are wonderful trees. In North Raleigh you can easily see them blooming along Raven Ridge Road (just west of Falls of Neuse Rd) in the early spring.
Remarkably, we have descriptions of the wild plums of the Carolinas going all the way back to the 1500’s, from the early Spanish expeditions:
“Twenty Indians came out to meet him each carrying his basket of mulberries which grow in abundance and good from Cutifachiqui thither and also on into other provinces, as well as walnuts and plums.
The trees grow wild in the fields without being planted or manured and are as large and as vigorous as if they were cultivated and irrigated in gardens.”
The very same comment about the plums growing “wild in the fields without being planted” was also made in reference to north Florida:
“Within a league and a half league about that town were other towns where there was abundance of maize, pumpkins, beans, and dried plums native to the land, which are better than those of Spain and grow wild in the fields without being planted.”
(all quotes from the UofAL edition of The DeSoto Chronicles)
The Spanish had no problem describing maize (and certain other plants) as being deliberately cultivated by the native peoples, but where they mention plums they repeatedly commented that they were “wild” and *not* planted, and this impressed them greatly, that such a quality plum could grow “wild”. (The Spanish blamed the faults in the quality of native grapes on their lack of cultivation.)
The Spanish also reported a cultural distinction between how maize was regarded as a kind of personal possession of the cultivator, but fruits like plums were not personally owned:
“In Florida, there are also many walnuts, plums, mulberries, and grapes. They sow and harvest the maize, each one cultivating his own.
The fruits are common to all, for they grow very abundantly in the open fields, without it being necessary to plant or cultivate them.”
Did the people introduce the plums, the same way they introduced maize? Or did the plums introduce themselves, following the people (as these plums still follow people today, growing along our roadsides without our having to plant them)? Or perhaps the people followed the plums, by camping preferentially wherever delicious plums grew, and bringing them into cultivation over time? Or all of the above?
Archaeology may someday provide more direct evidence. Until then, it is fun to speculate!
Thanks, Bryan, for offering a different perspective. I highly recommend: 1491 – New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, a book by Charles Mann. Here are a few pertinent quotes:
“… North America was a busy, talkative place. By 1000 AD, trade relationships had covered the continent for more than a thousand years …”.
“Native Americans had transformed their land so completely that Europeans arrived in a hemisphere already massively “landscaped” by human beings.”
So when the Spanish arrived in North America, there had been more than a thousand years of ongoing trade. Time enough for the rise and fall of tribes and settlements, and for the distribution and naturalization of plums and many other foods. Trees observed by the Spanish to be growing wild in the field may have been the offspring of trees planted hundreds or even a thousand years before. As you mentioned, we may never know for certain their native range and conflicting narratives abound. But we can hope that some day archeology and genetic studies may tell the tale.
Thanks, I like Mann, and that’s all very true. I’m really just repeating the hope laid out by MacDougall in the Journal of Biogeography back in 2003, that archaeology is our best chance for filling in some of these details, since written records can point in all directions depending on the time period, and no written records are available to describe what happened here 1,000 years ago or 10,000 years ago, which is what we’d need to know, given how long humans have been living here.
There is good evidence now of humans moving plant species around within the Americas as far back as 8,000+ years ago, and new discoveries continue to be made (Piperno, 2011 gives a nice summary focused on Central and South America). People have been moving plants for so long — probably for nearly as long as there have been people (endozoochory from the beginning…).
And the ecological influence of humans on the “native” flora isn’t just that they deliberately moved food plants — it is so much more.
Pre-human North America had a very different climate than the present day, and the natural plant communities here then were very different in that last glacial maximum from what we see now, as pollen records indicate. The current plant communities moved into their present locations and combinations in our region with a human influence present here the whole time.
We can know, fairly well, what the pre-European ecosystems of 500 years ago were like, so using that as a reference point for “native” seems practical to me, but as for what would have been “native” here without any humans having ever been here at all, with no ancient “landscaping”…that requires imagining 10,000+ years of alternate ecological history.
So what might the “native” post-glacial floral communities of our region have become if humans hadn’t been here at all…?
With no humans, more megafauna may have survived from the Pleistocene, and fire frequencies for the last 10,000 years would have certainly been different, and while some plants and animals may not have been dispersed as much in the post-glacial period without humans (and their companion dogs), other plants may have been dispersed more effectively by the megafaunal species which could have survived. Given the likelihood that the now-extinct megafauna acted as ecosystem engineers (as they do today in Africa), post-glacial plant communities may have developed quite differently here without humans, based more heavily on large-animal-physical-destruction-created forest gaps and clearings, and the dispersal advantages given to different species.
Certainly Prunus angustifolia grows well across much of North America under our current climate. With its need for relatively open habitats instead of dense forest, short thorns seemingly suited for discouraging large trampling animals, a suckering ability allowing its thickets to recover and expand even after the destruction of its main trunks, and relatively large sweet fruits seemingly fit for dispersal by larger animals, there is every reason to expect it could have done well in a hypothetical southern savannah-woodland community maintained by hypothetical surviving megafauna across our region, in a hypothetical “native” human-free post-glacial world.
Instead of that human-free world, we’ve had thousands of years of a widespread human-maintained southern savannah-woodland ecosystem (until the Europeans arrived), but at least this human “landscaped” world seemed to work out quite well for Prunus angustifolia anyway, so well that America’s plums looked perfectly wild to the earliest European observers — or at least as wild as our walnuts, mulberries, and grapes.
Awesome information!! Thanks for providing fascinating background details!