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Plum, Japanese

Japanese Plum and hardy hybrids
Deciduous, Edible fruit, Trees

Japanese plums bloom earlier (and so are more susceptible to frost damage) than European plums, and produce fruit in many colors, both inside and out. Skin may be yellow, red, purple, green, blue, or almost black; flesh may be yellow, red, or green. Japanese plums are the largest and juiciest you can grow, with a pleasant blend of acid and sugar; they are mainly eaten fresh.

The trees grow to 15–20 ft. tall, with a slightly wider spread; but it’s easy to keep these trees to 10–15 feet high. There are no truly dwarfing rootstocks for plums, and semidwarf trees are only slightly smaller than standards.

Most Japanese plums require 500 to 900 hours at 45°F/7°C or lower to produce fruit. Some are self-fruitful, but others need cross-pollination to produce good crops. Japanese varieties bear very heavily, producing much small fruit. If the entire crop were allowed to ripen, its weight might damage the tree—so thin fruits to 4–6 in. apart as soon as they are large enough to be seen.

Where winters are severe, gardeners grow a complex group of hardy hybrids involving Japanese plum, several species of native American wild plums, and the native Western sand cherry (P. besseyi). Those with fruit near the size and quality of Japanese plums are sometimes called Japanese-American hybrids; those with smaller fruit closer in flavor to the wild species are often called cherry-plum hybrids. Some of the hardy hybrids are trees; others grow as bushes to about 6 ft. high and at least as broad. The hardy hybrids originated in Canada, the Dakotas, and Minnesota and are exceptionally tolerant of cold and wind. Pollination of hardy hybrids is difficult; ask local nurseries about effective pollenizers.

Most Japanese plum trees are trained to a vase shape, with five or six main scaffold branches; fruiting laterals grow from these scaffolds. Where space is limited, trees can be trained in a more linear fashion (against a wall or fence, for example). Japanese varieties tend to make tremendous shoot growth, and rather severe pruning is necessary at all ages, regardless of the training method. Many varieties produce excessive vertical growth; shorten these shoots to outside branchlets. If you grow hardy hybrids, prune them to renew unfruitful branches (on shrubby types, cut older shoots to the ground every few years) and to keep the plant’s center open.

‘Elephant Heart’ plum

Pollinate with ‘Santa Rosa’. Very large fruit. Dark red skin; rich red flesh. Fine flavor. Midseason to late. Skin is tart until fruit is fully ripe. Long harvest season.

‘Laroda’ plum

Pollinate with ‘Burgundy’, ‘Santa Rosa’, ‘Late Santa Rosa’. Large fruit. Red skin; amber flesh (red near skin). Rich and juicy. Midseason. Fruit holds well on the tree.

‘Santa Rosa’ plum (photo courtesy of E. Spencer Toy)
‘Santa Rosa’ plum (photo courtesy of E. Spencer Toy)

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‘Santa Rosa’ plum

Self-fruitful. Medium to large fruit. Purplish red skin with heavy blue bloom; yellow flesh (dark red near skin). Rich, pleasing, tart flavor. Early. Low chill requirement. Important commercial variety for fresh eating. Good canned if skin is removed. ‘Weeping Santa Rosa’ has a unique drooping habit, grows to only 6–8 ft. tall.

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