If you want a plum tree (Prunus spp.) for a garden of native plants, you'll have to put up with prickles, as wild plums have thorny branches -- including the one you'll most likely encounter, the American wild plum (Prunus americana).
European plums (Prunus domesticus) and Japanese plums (Prunus salicina) do not have thorns. These two species grow in U.S. Department of Agriculture plant hardiness zones 4 through 8, depending on cultivar. European plums typically grow better in the colder end of that range.
American Wild Plum
American wild plum is widespread throughout the United States where it grows in USDA zones 3b through 8. It grows from 15 to 18 feet high and 12 to 18 feet wide, with thorny branches growing from multiple trunks or clumps of stems. It shows white flowers in spring and yields 1/2-inch-wide plums that ripen from red to yellow. Birds like the plums, and they can be made into jellies.
American wild plum are sometimes used to form hybrid varieties with Japanese plums. The resulting plums are smaller than typically large juicy Japanese plums, but the hybrid trees, which do not have thorns, will survive colder winters.
Chickasaw plum (Prunus augustifolia), sometimes called sand plum, sandhill plum or mountain cherry, grows from 3 to 10 feet tall forming extensive thorny thickets in the wild. It grows with multiple stems with branches that have reddish brown bark, and it yields 1/4- to 1/2-inch-wide yellow, orange or red plums with thin skin. The plums can be bitter, although they are sometimes eaten fresh or used to make jam, jelly and wine. The Chickasaw plum is widespread in sandy prairies and will grow in USDA zones 6a through 9b.
The flatwoods plum (Prunus umbellata) grows 12 to 20 high and just as wide, yielding dry, hard, purple plums among its droopy, thorny branches. The 1/2 to 1-inch-wide plums, much loved by birds, are tart to sweet. It bears showy creamy white to gray flowers in spring. Found naturally in the southwest United States, it will grow in USDA zones 8a through 9b.
Canada plum (Prunus nigra), also called Princess Kay plum, is a wild plum that grows 15 to 20 feet high and 12 to 15 feet wide in the southern parts of Eastern Canadian provinces and in the mountains south along the East Coast to Georgia. Growing in USDA zones 3 through 9, it has thorns on its branches that grow to about 2 inches long. It is grown primarily for its fragrant white flowers with double rows of petals that turn pink as they mature in the spring. Its yield of plums is negligible, although they can be eaten fresh or made into wine, jellies and jams.
The endangered scrub plum (Prunus geniculate) is native to areas of central Florida within USDA zones 9a and 9b. It has a gnarled trunk with zig-zagging branches with thorns at their tips. It yields bitter, reddish purple plums about an inch long. As of 2008, there were less than 100 of these trees left.
- Iowa State University Extension: Wild Plum (Prunus americana)
- University of Florida IFAS Extension: Prunus Americana (Wild Plum)
- Trees and Shrubs, A Field Guide to Trees and Shrubs; Northeastern and North Central Unied States: Geore A. Petrides, Roger Troy Pererson
- University of Wisconsin-Green Bay: Prunus Nigra Canada Plum
- University of Florida IFAS Extension: Prunus Augustifolia Chickasaw Plum
- Colorado Tree Coalition: Princess Kay Plum
- Florida Native Plant Society: Prunus Geniculata
- Florida Natural Areas Inventory: Scrub Palm
- University of Florida IFAS Extension: Prunus Umbullata: Flatwoods Plum
- University of Illinois Extension: Plums
- USDA: Chickasaw Plum
- Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center: Prunus Nigra
- University of Minnesota: Wild Fruits of Minnesota
A one-time farm boy, Richard Hoyt, holder of a PhD in American studies, is a former newspaper reporter, magazine writer and college professor. While writing 27 novels of suspense, he has lived on sugar cane, pepper and papaya plantations and helped keep bees in Belize.