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The ManyTracks Orchard

Plums and Chums


plum trees in full bloom


Prolific in Bloom, Independent in Tree Shape,
Picky in Pollination, a Challenge in the North,
and Well Worth It when they Fruit!


Four decades of Growing Good Food in the Northwoods of Michigan's Upper Peninsula
Down to Earth Information, Experiences, Thought







Mont Royal



South Dakota





 My first plums were cherry plums (chums), planted in 1990. That first Sapalta lived to the ripe old age of 24 which is quite unusual for a chum, giving us sporadic but generous harvests of its rich dark purple fruit. Its companion Oka introduced me to one of the challenges of growing fruit in the north. It fruited but the fruit never matured, it needed a longer season, so I took it out.

A few years later a friend dug up one of a multitude of suckers growing around his vegetable field, a red plum he didn't have a name for. I didn't really have a place for it so "temporarily" stuck it in a garden plot where, with the rich garden soil, it grew vigorously and produced a great crop of red plums for several years. Wonderful! The next year the too-fast-growing and not well pruned tree split in half. We cut it down and discovered another attribute of many plums - they sucker prolifically. Many, many years later the root suckers of this plum continued to pop up.

Over the next years I added more plums, and learned about pollination. The solution often advised is to add even more plums, which I did. But there is much more to that pollination story (see below) - it depends on what varieties you have and what varieties you add, something I am just now (2019) solving in my orchard. I love the beauty of these trees, their resilience in spite of leaf blights and canker, winter injury, frosted blossoms, and a human that keeps mowing down all its joyously produced suckers which, if I had paid attention and let some of those grow and fruit years ago, would have helped it to pollinate and produce fruit. Most of my purchased plum trees were grafted on American Plum rootstock which was what was suckering, and whose pollen my Japanese hybrid varieties needed.

I'm still growing plums. When they do give forth fruit, it is beautiful and delicious -- eaten fresh, in sauce, in jam, in wine. It's a worthwhile partnership with an interesting tree.

POLLINATION - This has proven to be a tricky thing with the hybrids that I grow. It's isn't a new dilemma. I came across a 1951 publication from the University of Minnesota, "Pollination Studies With Stone Fruits" by Alderman and Weir. In the introduction they state:

"...Little was known, however, about the large amount of cross sterility or incompatibility that exists between varieties of these fruits until about 1920 to 1930 when hybrid plums and cherry-plums were planted extensively in Minnesota nd nearby states. The problem assumed serious aspects in Minnesota when commercial plantings of the large fruited hybrid plums reached bearing age and failed to set satisfactory crops in spite of profuse bloom."

In 1938 the University's Agricultural Experiment Station began an impressive 21 year study and this publication reports their results. Here is a link to the publication: https://conservancy.umn.edu/bitstream/handle/11299/108232/1/TB198.pdf

To me the important piece in that publication (though it is all very good) is in this paragraph:

"From a study of table 3 it becomes apparent that varieties of native American species are good pollinizers almost without exception. Furthermore, it shows that a preponderance of good pollinizers is found in hybrids in which native species appear as female parents."     [included in the later are Kaga, South Dakota, and Toka].

This summer the newsletter of the Canada DGB Fruit Growers Group had an article by Thean Phey on Plum Pollination. It doesn’t give any easy answers, no answers really, but it is interesting and adds a bit more to consider. The plum article is down the page below the Budding and Grafting one.


My own experience over almost 30 yrs with various number of hybrid plums but no American Plums flowering was only two years with a somewhat reasonable plum crop.  Those years also had a Pembina blossoming, and one year Kaga. Unfortunately the Pembina died a few years ago. Many of those years of lack of crop was likely due to untimely (for fruit) frost and freezes. And I often did get a scattering of fruit, and the Sapalta Chum often had good harvests.

Last year (2018) my plums were as they have been - great bloom, few fruit. This year (2019) I had for the first time a few blossoms on two of my young AmeriPlums (14 and 7 to be exact) and a few on a South Dakota graft. Plus a decent bloom on Kaga. Everything else blossomed in thick profusion. Pollinators overall were scarce except bumblebees but they were plentiful and busy in the blooms. I didn’t expect much if any fruit. But to my surprise I got 43 plums off my oldest Gracious (plus 5 LaCrescent, 2 Underwood, and a lone first fruit from a young Grenville). Sapalta also had a dozen fruit. Not a lot to be sure but this is the most I’ve seen since the Pembina died four years ago. Not a for sure conclusion but it does implicate the AmeriPlums, maybe Kaga though that one has bloomed before without resulting in much fruit. It will be interesting to see what happens this coming year. I'm hoping there will be a larger AmeriPlum bloom.

On the Sapalta chums the years of excellent harvest were when I also had an unknown seedling chum flowering or an early unknown red plum, a sucker from a friend that was around for a few years.

No easy conclusions to be had but I continue hopeful. Others are finding the American Plums to be the key to their hybrid plums fruiting and I expect that may likely be the case in my orchard. Meantime, the plums, even without fruit, are a beautiful tree.

2019 - Full Beautiful Bloom 5/30 - on all regular plums including Kaga. A few buds on east Ameriplums, and South Dakota but they aren't open yet. Not a lot of pollinators around, but a few, mostly bumblebees. Gracious tree is so full and thick of blossoms I can’t see leaves or branches. All beautiful. 6/1 The Ameriplums at the house are full of blossoms. The chums haven't yet.

June 3, 2019 -- Faith, Hope, and Enjoying what Comes

plums in bloomWe woke up to a very cool 24 degrees in the orchard this morning (hopefully our last frost) but the plums made it clear a little chill wasn't going to dampen their spirits! They are ready for the ball and doing their best to entice the pollinators to their flower dance. Every year I see this display and think - maybe this year, maybe this year the story will continue on to a happy full harvest of fruit ending. And maybe this WILL be the year! Unfortunately, these are all Japanese hybrid varieties, very good eating, but it has been discovered that these don't care to pollinate each other, bees or not, and even though I have six different varieties, plenty one would think for cross pollination, they prefer something more. And that something is a wild (American) plum. Well, I now have a number of wild plums coming along nicely but they are not quite old enough to bloom yet. There are a few other varieties that have been found to pollinate the Japanese hybrids and one of those, South Dakota, we grafted onto a branch of one of the younger trees two years ago. It grew well (plums are enthusiastic growers) and this year put out a half dozen blossoms! Not many but maybe enough to do at least a minor job? It will be a bit before I'll know but I have my fingers crossed. Because of the cool weather there aren't a lot of pollinators out and about but we've had a few sunny days recently and I have seen and heard a small contingent in the blossoms so I'm hopeful. It sure would be nice to get more than a handful of plums from the many plum trees.

Now we do actually have a really nice, beautiful 30 some year old American plum, right outside the back window of the house. And it has two beautiful offspring alongside it. (It would happily have a couple dozen more if I'd let it.) All three are in full bloom this year as well, pleasing us wonderfully. But they've never set fruit since they, apparently, need somebody else for cross pollination. Plums (like people?) can be very picky. If the two patches, one at the house, one in the orchard, could get together I'm guessing fruit would likely result. But they are about 350 feet apart with a small but tall woods between, which apparently is too much of a barrier for the pollinators to do the job that needs to be done.

So we admire the prolific display of blossoms in their time, appreciate the leafy season, enjoy the interesting tree shapes in the winter, and look forward, ever hopeful, to someday a bountiful harvest of fruit. Even a moderate crop would make this orchardist very happy.

9/7-20 ripe fruit!! Not a lot but more than has been. 75 total from all (3 trees). Not a lot to be sure, but there's hope. Next year should be a stronger year for blossoms from the orchard american plums.

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Have you read  "Frost Dancing - Tips from a Northern Gardener" ? A fun short read.

or "Homesteading Adventures"    Creating our backwoods homestead--the first 20 years.

and "Growing Berries for Food and Fun"   A journey you can use in your own garden.

updated 10/06/2019

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