American plum (Prunus americana)
Prunus americana Marsh. var. americana
Prunus americana Marsh. var. lanata Sudw.
CONFIRMATION STATUS: Confirmed.
TAXONOMY: The currently accepted scientific name of American plum
is Prunus americana Marsh. American plum is most closely related to and
hybridizes naturally with Chickasaw plum (Prunus angustifolia Marsh.),
producing Prunus X orthopsepala Koehne. Many horticultural crosses
have been made with American plum and other Prunus.
NATIVE STATUS: Native, United States and Canada.
GENERAL BOTANICAL CHARACTERISTICS: American plum's
form is usually shrubby, but it may grow as a small tree. It ranges from
3.3 to 33 feet (1-10 m) tall tall. It is likely to grow tallest and assume tree
form in its southern distribution. American plum usually grows as a small,
single-stemmed tree in southern Alabama, Georgia, and Florida. American
plum trees have short, crooked trunks with stiff lateral branches that form
wide, flat-topped, irregular crowns. Tree trunks may reach 12 inches (30
cm) in diameter. Crowns are spreading. The national champion tree is 18
feet (5.5 m) tall, 3.8 feet (1.1 m) in diameter, and 18 feet in spread; it grows
in Fairfax County, Virginia. American plum wood is moderately heavy and
hard. Bark is "moderately" thick. Some to all branches are spurred, becom-
ing more so with age. Bottom branches typically grow low to the ground.
American plum is commonly infected with a fungus that produces black
swellings on the twigs. American plum is deciduous. Leaves are narrow
with sharp teeth; they are 3 to 5 inches (8-13 cm) long. Flowers and fruits
grow on short spur shoots. The inflorescence is an umbel with 2 to 4
flowers. The flowers are strongly fragrant and showy, about 1 inch (2.5
cm) across. Fruits are yellow or red drupes, 0.8 to 1.3 inches (2.0-3.2 cm)
in diameter. They may be solitary or in clusters. The seed is a smooth,
compressed stone. Root structure is not well known for American plum.
A few researchers found American plum had shallow, spreading roots.
American plum often forms thickets that are sometimes dense; these
thickets spread from root sprouts. Because American plum clones,
Ameri can plum thickets can persist long after the original short-lived
parent stems have died.
REGENERATION PROCESS: American plum propogates itself by
reseeding and vegetative spreading. Good fruit and seed crops are pro-
duced about every other year. Honeybees are American plum's principal
pollinator while frugivorous birds and mammals and gravity disperse
American plum seeds. American plum's common occurrence along fence-
rows shows evidence of bird dispersal.
Sprouting appears more important to American plum regeneration than
seedling establishment. American plum spreads underground from root
sprouts, forming thickets. American plum root sprouts may occur as much
as 10 feet (3 m) from parent plants. American plum also sprouts from the
root crown or from aerial stems. Many species in the rose family sprout
from roots, although root sprouting is uncommon in most plant families.
SITE CHARACTERISTICS: Soils supporting American plum are
generally nutrient-rich and deep. American plum prefers medium- to
coarse-textured, acidic to mildly alkaline soils. American plum grows on
sites receiving at least 16 inches (40 cm) of annual precipitation. In east-
ern North America, American plum grows most often on moist sites.
American plum tolerates some shade but prefers full sun.
SUCCESSIONAL STATUS: There is much more information on
American plum succession in the Great Plains than elsewhere. Further
studies are needed on successional trends of American plum in its eastern
and southern distributions. American plum is generally most successful
on sunny, moist sites in early succession. American plum often persists
in woodlands unless the woodland succeeds to forest. It is typically a
shrub-layer component in woodlands but grows into the tree layer occa-
sionally but declines with canopy closure, so it is uncommon in late succes-
SEASONAL DEVELOPMENT: American plum has a long period of
winter dormancy relative to other Prunus. The flowerbud scales are large
enough to permit a 2- to 3-fold expansion of primordial flowers. The
flowers emerge before or with the leaves in early to midspring. Fruits
ripen from mid- to late summer. Seeds mature from September to early
GENERAL DISTRIBUTION: American plum is the most broadly distri-
buted wild plum in North America. It occurs from southern Saskatchewan
east to southern Quebec and southern Maine and south to Arizona and
central Florida. Its core distribution extends from Minnesota east to Rhode
Island and south to central Oklahoma and north-central Florida. Popula-
tions become increasingly isolated outside this core area, with extremely
isolated plants in Washington. American plum is native to North America,
but its native range is unclear. Its core range may approximate its distribu-
tion before European settlement. Human plantings have expanded Ameri-
can plum distribution; American plum is often planted outside its core
range and sometimes escapes cultivation. It is likely nonnative in Wash-
ington, Oregon, California, Idaho, Nevada, and Texas. Some claim American
plum does not occur in Texas, but it has been documented in East Texas
and has been planted and has probably established elsewhere in the state.
American plum is nonnative in Quebec and likely in other Canadian loca-
tions. Native Americans may have introduced American plum in the Great
Plains before European settlement. American plum's native status is uncer-
tain in the Intermountain West. Pioneers introduced American plum in
Utah, but American plum may have already been present in some parts
of the state.
SKY MEADOWS DISTRIBUTION:
Tree specimens can be found on trails marked in red.
Appalachian Trail/Old Trail
South Ridge/North Ridge
Rolling Meadows/ Lost Mountain
The specific distribution of American plum has not been determined.
HABITAT TYPES AND PLANTS COMMUNITIES: American plum
is mostly a woodland species, growing in mixed-hardwood communities
and on woodland ecotones . It also grows in shrublands and rarely, on open
prairies. It often establishes in riparian zones. It occurs on stream, pond,
and lake boarders and on swamp ecotones.
American plum is less common in the Intermountain, northeastern, and
southeastern regions than in the Great Plains. As of 2010, there was little
information on specific plant communities of the Northeast and Appalachian
regions with which American plum is associated. American plum is associ-
ated with Shumard oak (Quercus shumardii) "shinneries" on the Atlantic
IMPORTANCE AND USES: American plum is a nectar plant for bees
and butterflies, and a pollen plant for bees. Many herbivores including white-
tailed deer, mule deer, and cottontails browse American plum. Many birds
and mammals eat the plums, including sharp-tailed grouse, squirrels,
white-tailed deer, foxes, coyotes, northern raccoons, and America black
American plum thickets provide thermal and hiding cover for many bird
and mammal species. American plum provides nesting cover for many bird
species, particularly those preferring edges or thickets.
American plum is used for restoration plantings, wildlife habitat and food
plantings, windbreaks, shelterbelts, snow fences, mine spoil restoration,
and erosion control. Since it forms thickets, it is highly useful for erosion
American plum is a culinary plant. It is cultivated for fruit and as an orna-
mental, but it is not usually grown in commercial orchards. Over 200
forms of American plum have been selected for cultivation, and American
plum has been extensively hybridized with commercial plum cultivars. It
is some- times used as rootstock plant for cultivated Prunus species, but
its tendency to root sprout means it is not ideal rootstock material.
American plum was used extensively by Native Americans. Some research-
ers speculate that Native Americans were cultivating American plums near
villages before the arrival of Europeans. The Pima of Arizona and Mexico
cultivated American plums since at least the period of Hispanic occupancy
(1600s to mid-1800s). The Cheyenne ate the plums fresh, dried, and cook-
ed in desserts. Fruits were also used in medicines. Branches were used to
make the altar for the Sun Dance. The Navajo made red dye from the roots.
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