Typically, when you’re looking for stunning garden specimens, you don’t go trolling the roadside. But that’s where I first became enchanted with wild plum: on a steep, dry embankment near an interstate. Every day I walked the overpass near a thicket of small, thorny, completely unremarkable trees. Then spring came, and I could smell the pungent white blossoms a block away. A few months later, the trees hung heavy with tiny, delicious, purplish fruits. I’d stumbled upon the perfect illustration of a wild plum’s life: it thrives on neglect and often congregates in wastelands; it suckers to form extensive colonies; and it produces loads of fragrant flowers in spring and edible fruit in summer. This little tree shows—as gardeners know better than most—that beauty is where you find it.
Common name: Wild plum, American plum, American red plum, hog plum
Botanical name: Prunus americana
Plant type: Deciduous small tree or large shrub
Zones: 3 to 8
Height: 15 to 25 feet
• Sun: Full sun to part shade
• Soil: Average, well-drained
• Moisture: Medium to dry. Found in the wild in rocky, sandy soils.
• Mulch: Three to six inches of organic mulch will help the soil retain moisture. Don’t mulch up against the tree trunk, as this encourages rot.
• Pruning: Wild plum will sucker vigorously. If you want to keep it contained, prune suckers to the ground.
• Fertilizer: None needed
• By seed and cuttings.
Pests and diseases
• Borers, aphids, scale insects, and caterpillars can be problems.
• Leaf spot, plum curculio, brown rot, black knot, and canker can affect the tree.
• Be very particular about where you plant a wild plum. The ideal site is one where the plum’s suckering habit is a boon and not a curse: a place where you need a windbreak, or erosion control, or where you want to establish a patch of wildlife-friendly woodland.
• Wild plum flowers in the early spring. Some call the fragrance unpleasant; others say it’s spicy and sweet.
• The edible fruit, about 1 inch long, ripens in June or July. It’s said to be especially good in jams and jellies.
• If you don’t eat the fruit, the birds will.
• For the best fruit crop, plant two or more wild plums. Wild plums are also excellent pollinators for hybrid plums.
• Fall color is yellow to red.
All in the family
• Canadian plum (Prunus nigra) is very similar to P. americana, and its range is about the same, though it is found further north. The cultivar ‘Princess Kay’ (P. nigra ‘Princess Kay’) is a popular ornamental with fragrant double flowers and sparse fruit.
• Other native Prunus trees include pin cherry (P. pensylvanica) and chokecherry (P. virginiana). Both produce fruit that can be made into jams and jellies or left for the birds.
(Text by Elizabeth Noll, photo of Prunus americana courtesy of Missouri Botanical Garden’s Kemper Center for Home Gardening)