Wild plum is a shrub that propagates itself by root sprouts to form thickets, or it can be a small tree with spreading, more or less hanging, branches. It's a favorite native landscaping plant for its ornamental qualities, edible fruit, and wildlife benefit. It is one of many species in its genus.
Leaves are alternate, simple, 2½–4 inches long, 1½–2 inches wide, broadest at or below the middle; margin sharply toothed; upper surface dark green, lower surface paler and net-veined.
Bark is dark brown to reddish, breaking into thin, long, scaly plates, pores horizontal and prominent.
Twigs are slender, smooth, green to orange to reddish-brown; lateral branches spurlike or sometimes thorny; pores circular, raised, minute buds smooth (without hairs).
Flowers April–May, in clusters of 2–5, stalks ¼–¾ inch long, smooth; flowers ¾–1¼ inches broad, white, fragrant; petals 5, broadest at the middle, rounded at the tip, and narrow at the base; stamens about 20.
Fruits July–September, in clusters with 1–5 fruits; fruit usually ¾–1 inch long, globe-shaped, red or sometimes yellow, conspicuously marked with pale dots; skin tough; flesh yellow and juicy, varying in flavor.
Similar species: At least 11 species in genus Prunus have been recorded growing in natural settings in Missouri, and at least 4 of them are called "plums." The rest are cherries, peach, and apricot.
- Chickasaw plum (P. angustifolia) is scattered, mostly south of the Missouri River, in upland prairies, sand prairies, openings in upland forests, pastures, ditches, roadsides, and similar habitats. The leaves are smaller and lance-shaped, the blade usually slightly folded lengthwise and the tip curled down.
- Wild goose plum, or hortulan plum (P. hortulana), is scattered to common nearly statewide, though less common in northwest Missouri. It occurs along stream, pond, and lake banks; edges of prairies and swamps; pastures, fencerows, old homesites, roadsides, and similar habitats. A native multistemmed shrub, it is sometimes cultivated as an ornamental, and cultivars exist. Leaf margin is finely toothed with a gland arising from the very tip of each tooth; the teeth are conspicuous, spreading away from the margin.
- Wild goose plum (P. munsoniana, P. rivularis, or P. hortulana), is a native suckering shrub scattered nearly statewide, except for the extreme northwestern and southeastern parts of the state. It forms dense thickets. It bears red or yellow, white-dotted, ¾-inch-long fruits, with a thin whitish coating. The leaf margins are finely toothed to rounded with a gland on the incurved face; fully grown leaves are more or less folded lengthwise, appearing troughlike.
- Big tree plum, Mexican plum, or wild plum (P. mexicana), is scattered to common nearly statewide, growing on banks of streams and rivers, rich upland forests, pond edges, bases and tops of bluffs, glade edges, pastures, fencerows, roadsides, and similar habitats. A native plum, it is sometimes planted as an ornamental or as a wildlife food plant. Its ball-shaped fruits can reach 1½ inches wide; they become red but eventually ripen to grayish blue or grayish lavender with a whitish coating. The lower surface of the leaves is hairy; the leaf stalk is stout and hairy.
- Black cherry, wild cherry, or rum cherry (P. serotina) is scattered to common nearly statewide. This common native tree usually grows 32–50 feet high. Dense, cylindrical, many-flowered flower clusters 3–6 inches long develop after the leaves develop.
- Choke cherry, or eastern choke cherry (P. virginiana), is scattered to common north of the Missouri River, less common in the southern half of the state. A native shrub or small tree, its flowers form in short, dense, cylindrical clusters 3–6 inches long; it bears edible fruits (15–30 in a cluster) used to make jellies and jams.
- Sour cherry (P. cerasus), the cultivated fruit tree that originated in Eurasia, sometimes escapes from cultivation or persists at old home sites.
- Perfumed cherry (P. mahaleb), a native of Eurasia, was introduced as an ornamental, as grafting stock for other cherries, and as a source for cherrywood pipestems. It is scattered in the southern half of the Ozarks, in glades, upland forests, stream and river banks, bluff ledges, and in pastures, fencerows, cemeteries, roadsides, and similar habitats. It can be aggressive, forming thickets and sometimes invading natural areas. Planting it is discouraged. Leaves are egg-shaped to broadly heart-shaped or circular, the top abruptly pointed to blunt; the upper surface is dark green, shiny, and smooth.
- Peach (and nectarine) (P. persica), the cultivated fruit tree native to Asia, is uncommon and sporadic in Missouri's natural settings. It sometimes occurs in upland forests, stream banks, and old homesites, roadsides, and other disturbed areas. Its flowers are pink or strongly pinkish-tinged.
- Apricot (P. armeniaca), the cultivated fruit tree native to Asia, sometimes escapes from cultivation or persists at old home sites. Its flowers are pink or strongly pinkish-tinged while in bud, but become white at flowering.
The well-known European plum (P. domestica), including damson, greengage, prune plum, and other grocery-store cultivars, apparently does not escape cultivation in Missouri.
In most garden centers, probably the most common ornamental purple-leaf plum you will find is P. cerasifera. There are several named cultivars of this species, which is native to Eurasia. It does not escape cultivation in our state, and depending on the cultivar, may be prone to various pests or diseases.
More similar species: Note that several other small trees in the rose family bloom in spring with white, five-petaled flowers:
- Downy serviceberry (Amelanchier arborea) has petals that are bright white, strap-shaped, wavy, with a space between them (not rounded and close together).
- The invasive Callery (or Bradford) pear (Pyrus calleryana) has white petals that are rounded and close together (they touch/overlap at their bases); its flower stamens are not longer than the petals; and the flowers are unpleasant-smelling.
- Apples and crabapples (Malus spp.) have flowers with a slightly pink hue. Their fruits, on maturity, have the seeds surrounded by a papery or leathery "core."
Height: to 20 feet.
Habitat and Conservation
Occurs in woodlands, pastures, and thickets. A fast-growing, short-lived small tree that has been planted in parks and orchards for its attractive, fragrant flowers and edible fruits. There are many horticultural forms and hybrids of this popular shrub.
Native Missouri shrub or small tree. There are many species of plums (genus Prunus) in Missouri, but this is one of the most common.
Very popular in native landscaping for its attractive, fragrant spring flowers, which attract butterflies and other pollinators; edible fruits; and graceful shape. Many varieties and hybrids are available for cultivation.
The fruit makes excellent jellies and preserves; may be eaten raw or cooked. Rated as the best fruit plum in the Midwest and North regions. It is growing in popularity as a native shrub with edible fruit. Strategic pruning and mulching increases the fruit yield.
A popular landscaping shrub with fragrant, showy clusters of white flowers. Many hybrids and cultivars exist; do some research before you make your selection. Wild plums are a great alternative to the invasive Callery (Bradford) pear, and the flowers are much better smelling, in most people's opinions.
In addition to wild plum (Prunus americana), some other native wild plums are very popular as spring-flowering landscaping plants with edible fruits; these include wild goose plum (P. munsoniana) and big tree plum (P. mexicana).
Landscaping with native plants helps pollinators and biodiversity. Also, as a general rule, native plants are resilient, adapted for our region's climate and growing conditions, requiring less irrigation and chemical treatments than nonnatives.
With just a little practice, you can learn to identify the characteristic sweet fragrance emitted by a blossoming colony of wild plums. This is the same method that butterflies use to fly upwind and find these early spring nectar sources!
The fruit is eaten by many species of birds, including bobwhite. Deer, raccoons, and squirrels relish the fruit as well. This tree is an early colonizer of old pastures and other once-disturbed landscapes that are reverting back to forest.
Wild plums are a magnet for the earliest of springtime butterflies, bees, and other pollinators. The Henry's elfin and spring azure butterflies and grapevine epimenis moth are especially fond of wild plum blossoms, and their emergence as adults is timed to coincide with the springtime blooming period of wild plum, plus a handful of other early-blooming trees and shrubs.
When you plant native wild plums as a great native alternative to the invasive Callery (Bradford) pear, you help to expand habitat resources for wildlife instead of contracting them. Many Missourians have been making the switch, and you can, too!
The various species of wild plums, plus other trees in the apple-cherry-plum family, can serve as host plants for the eastern tent caterpillar. These caterpillars live in groups in “tents” made by innumerable silken strands in the crotches of host trees. In spring, these tents are hard to miss. As the weeks progress and the caterpillars grow larger, the tents become soiled with their excrement. By midsummer, the tents are falling apart, as the full-grown caterpillars wander off alone to create cocoons and pupate to become moths. Populations of this species rise and fall in a cycle, with their numbers growing for a number of years, then “crashing” before starting the cycle again.