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Zones A2, A3, 1-24, 26, 28-45, H1
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Full
Regular Water
Moderate

Plum

Plum and prune
Rosaceae
Deciduous, Edible fruit, Trees

Like their cherry, peach, and apricot relatives, these are stone fruits belonging to the genus Prunus, which is the name you'll find their flowering cousins listed under. For crosses involving plums, apricots, and peaches, see Plum Hybrids.

Three categories of edible plums and prunes are grown in the West: European, Japanese, and hardy. All bloom in late winter or early spring; fruit ripens at some point from May into September, depending on variety and climate. 

The two most widely grown groups are European (Prunus x domestica) and Japanese (P. salicina). 'Damson' plum, which is sometimes considered a separate species, is probably a type of European plum (P. x domestica insititia); 'Damson' interbreeds freely with other European plums.

Prunes are European plum varieties with a high sugar content that makes it possible to sun-dry the fruit without it fermenting.

In the dry-summer West, plums are subject to far fewer problems than peaches or apples.

Dormant-season sprays combining horticultural oil with lime sulfur or fixed copper will control the fungal disease brown rot and various insect pests, including scale.

European Plum and Prune

European plums and prunes bloom later than Japanese plums and are better adapted to areas with late frosts or cool, rainy spring weather. Many are self-fruitful, but others need cross-pollination to produce good crops. Their flesh that is firmer that that of Japanese plums, and can be cooked or eaten fresh.

Prunes are a form of European plum with a higher sugar content that makes it possible to sun-dry the fruit without it fermenting; they are used for drying or canning, but they can also be eaten fresh if you like their very sweet flavor. ‘Damson‘ plum, which is sometimes considered a separate species, is probably a type of European plum (P. x domestica insititia); ‘Damson‘ interbreeds freely with other European plums.

European plums demand 700 to 1,000 hours of chill to produce fruit.

As orchard trees, European plums reach 15‘20 ft. tall with somewhat wider spread, but with pruning they are easily kept to 10‘15 ft. high and wide. There are no truly dwarfing rootstocks for plums, and semidwarf trees are only slightly smaller than standards. European plums do not branch as freely as Japanese types, so selection of framework branches is limited; these plums are usually trained to a central leader. Mature European plums require pruning mainly to thin out annual shoot growth; otherwise, little is needed.

Japanese plum

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 15-20 ft. tall, with slightly wider spread; but it’s easy to keep these trees 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 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 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. Dark red skin; rich red flesh. Fine flavor. Midseason to late. Skin is tart until fruit is fully ripe. Longharvest season.

'Laroda' plum

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

'Mirabelle' plum, photo courtesy of WILDLIFE GmbH/Alamy
'Mirabelle' plum, photo courtesy of WILDLIFE GmbH/Alamy

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'Mirabelle' plum

Pollinated by any midseason non-‘Mirabelle’European plum. Small. Yellow fruit with orange to red dotson the skin; yellow flesh. Mild, sweet flavor. Ripening time varies. A type favored in Europe for making brandy. Also good in preserves. Lookfor ‘Geneva Mirabelle’ and ‘Reine de Mirabelle’.

, photo courtesy of E. Spencer Toy
, photo courtesy of E. Spencer Toy

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'Santa Rosa' plum

Self-fruitful. Medium to large. Purplish red skin withheavy 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 unique drooping habit, grows only 6–8 ft. tall.

'Stanley' plum, photo courtesy of Susan A. Roth
'Stanley' plum, photo courtesy of Susan A. Roth

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'Stanley' plum

Self-fruitful Large. Purplish black skin; yellow flesh. Sweet and juicy. Midseason. Good canning or dried prune variety. Fruit resembles a larger ‘Italian Prune’.

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