Sweet, tart, juicy and refreshing all at the same time; sand plums—or Chickasaw plums, Cherokee plums, Florida sand plums or sandhill plums, as they are sometimes called—grow across the central and eastern United States. Originally sand plums were cultivated by Native Americans before the Europeans started to arrive. Sand plums were probably a reliable food source for the Indians because they do well on little to no rainfall and enjoy sandy soil types where other crops wouldn’t be suitable. Additionally, the plums can be eaten right off the tree, making for a quick and refreshing snack. (I’d know because I’ve eaten made ripe sand plum from the saddle of a horse.)
Sand plum bushes are useful in that they stop sand from blowing and can stop banks from eroding along creeks and rivers. They are also an attractant for wildlife, which have a sweet tooth for the fruit. One endangered bird, the lesser prairie-chicken, uses sand plum thickets as a means of escape and thermal cover.
Sand plums start to ripen in mid to late summer and that can only mean one thing: sand plum jelly. Sometimes I feel there is nothing more coveted than a jar of sand plum jelly. Some people would just about give their left arm for a half pint to spread over their toast in the morning. My mother always made sand plum jelly when I was a child and now I make it every year too. It just wouldn’t be summertime if we weren’t standing out in the searing heat, searching for bright, red berries and trying to dodge the thorns on the bushes. They were always a pain, but the reward in the end never failed to be sweet.
Last year, a late freeze nearly wiped out the entire sand plum crop, however this year I’m predicting will be the summer of the sand plum. The rain has be plenty and when I drive down country roads I see little red dots on all the sand plum thickets. I suspect a lot of sand plum jelly jars will be passed around rural areas, with some pretty unfair trades made when it comes down to monetary value, but then again the demand sets the price.
Lacey Newlin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.