Biting into a sweet, juicy plum rewards you for your care in tending to the trees. Before you get to that point, you need to choose the type of plum you want to grow. Cultivars of large, sweet European plums (Prunus domestica) are typically easier to grow in the United States than Japanese plums (Prunus salicina). The widely grown, easy-to-maintain Damson plum (Prunus insititia) is often grouped with European plums, but botanists list it as a separate species. The American bush plum (Prunus Americana) and the Chickasaw plum (Prunus augustifolia) are the most widely grown of several native American plums. Comparing the features helps you choose the type that meets your preferences.
European plums, hardy in U.S. Department of Agriculture plant hardiness zones 5 to 8, are more likely to be self-fertile than Japanese plums. That means you can plant most kinds by themselves and they still bear plums. European plum trees grow in most parts of the U.S. and typically tolerate colder temperatures than Japanese plums. European plums stay on the tree longer than Japanese plums, and, once you pick them, they last longer than the Japanese variety. A popular European plum, the golden-yellow Stanley plum (P. domestica “Stanley”), grows in USDA zones 5 to 7.
Japanese plums, hardy in USDA zones 4 to 10, typically require more fruit-thinning and pruning than European plums. Japanese plums almost always need a nearby Japanese, American or American hybrid plum tree to yield plums. Pay attention to your climate before planting a Japanese plum. They tolerate hot summers better than European plums, but they also bloom earlier, making them more susceptible to damage by late spring frosts. They don’t set plums well in climates that have damp, cold springs. An example is the Santa Rosa plum (P. salicina “Santa Rosa”), which grows in USDA zones 5 through 9.
Damson plum trees have a low, compact crown that makes the fruit easy to harvest, and they’re self-fertile, meaning the tree yields plums if you plant it by itself. You can give a Damson tree little or no care and it still thrives. Damson trees yield heavy crops of juicy, purplish-blue plums that ripen from August through October. They grow in USDA zones 5 through 7, but they need at least 800 hours of chill time at temperatures between 32 and 45 degrees Fahrenheit in the winter to bear fruit.
Native plums have thick crowns of thorny branches that grow into impenetrable thickets in the wild. Pruning them can be a difficult chore for the home gardener. They yield decorative blossoms in spring, but their plums are not the best choice for eating. American bush plums (P. americana), hardy in USDA zones 3 to 8, have short trunks that bear a mass of slender, thorny branches. They're grown both for their bright red plums and their showy clusters of fragrant white flowers that appear before the leaves in spring. The plums have tough, thick skins and flat stones. You can eat them fresh, but they're more often made into preserves and jams.
Another widely grown native plum, the Chickasaw plum (P. augustifolia), also called sand plum, has a similar short trunk and thorny branches. Immature Chickasaw plums, about 1/2 inch wide, are red but turn yellow as they ripen. These plums are favorites of wildlife and can be eaten fresh, but they are more often used for jams and preserves. Chickasaw plums grow in USDA zones 6 through 9.
- National Gardening Association: Varieties of Plum
- Ladybird Wildflower Center, University of Texas: Prunus Americana
- University of Florida IFAS Extension: Prunus Augustifolia Chickasaw Plum
- University of Florida IFAS Extension: Prunus Americana American Plum
- Arbor Day: Plum, Damson Prunus Istitia
- USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service: Chickasaw Plum
- Monrovia: Santa Rosa Plum
- Missouri Botanical Garden: Prunus Domestica "Stanley"