Susan Poizner and the cover of her eBook Grow Fruit Trees That Thrive

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North American Native Plum Trees vs. European and Japanese Plums

Bright pink beach plums growing on shrub - North American native plums.
North American native plums are (also known as American wild plum trees) and they include a number of species including Beach plums (Prunus maritima). Photo credit: Ken Asmus, Oikos Tree Crops.

If you are creating a forest garden, or if you just want to grow more fruit trees in your backyard, you might consider planting plum trees. But here you have a few options. You could plant traditional European plum trees (Prunus domestica) like Greengage, Catalina or Italian Prune Plums. You could plant Japanese plum trees (Prunus salicina) like Satsuma, Shiro or Burbank.

Or you could opt instead to plant one of a number of native North American plum tree species. Also known as wild American plums, these plants include beach plums, chicksaw plums, American plums and Canada plums and all these species can be both beautiful and highly productive. In this article we'll find out how wild plums are different from European and Japanese plums and we'll explore which types of native North American plum trees might be ideal for your garden.


In 2009, I planted three Japanese plum trees in my community orchard in Toronto, Canada. We bought three different cultivars, and we were so excited! But, within a few years, all three trees were infected with black knot, a common fruit tree disease that affects many European and Japanese plum trees.

Each year, we meticulously pruned out and removed infected branches. We bagged them up and took them off the site to prevent the disease from spreading. But in 2013, this fungal disease moved deep into the trunk of one of the trees. At that point, there was no way to remove the black knot without killing the tree.

We had two choices and both were depressing:

  • We could leave the tree alone. Eventually, the disease would kill the tree. In the meantime, disease spores would continue to spread to other plum trees in the orchard.
  • Or we could cut the infected tree down, bag up the wood and remove it from the site. By removing the pathogen, we would be removing the risk of it continuing to spread.

So, we chose the latter and we removed that young tree in 2013, just four years after planting.

Woman cuts down a Japanese plum tree with black knot in her community orchard. North American native plums are less likely to get this common disease.
Susan Poizner (on left) cuts down a four year old plum tree in the Ben Nobleman Park Community Orchard. This tree was badly infected with black knot. On the right, Lynn, an orchard volunteer, shows a part of the trunk which was swollen due to this common fruit tree disease. (Photo credit: OrchardPeople.com)

Had we planted North American native plum trees in 2009, we probably would not have had this problem. That’s because while most European and Japanese plum varieties are susceptible to black knot, native American plum trees are more resistant to that disease. The other benefit of these native plants is that they offer food and habitat to beneficial insects and they also adapt better to our local soil and growing conditions, making them more resilient and easier to grow.

But what are native North American plum trees? And how do they differ from European and Japanese plum trees? Let’s dig in!

Crimson coloured North American native plums in a plastic container. Photo taken in Chicago.
North American native plums come are smaller than European plums and they are often tart tasting and used for jams and jellies. Photo credit: OrchardPeople.com.

What are North American Native Plum Trees?

While Japanese and European plum trees are usually grown as large, single stemmed trees, North American plum trees are smaller, usually multi-stemmed shrubs that grow in the wild in North America.

How are Native Plum Trees Propagated?

Japanese and American plum trees are usually grafted in order to ensure that the fruit produced is identical to the mother tree, In contrast, native North American plum trees are often propagated from seed. As a result, the fruit of seed-grown wild plum tree will be slightly different from that of the parent plants, varying in colour, size, and flavour.

Row of beach plum shrubs in an orchard. Beach plums are multi-stemmed native North American plum trees.
Most native North American plum tree species are multi-stemmed shrubs. These are newly planted beach plums. Photo credit: Ken Asmus, Oikos Tree Crops.

What do North American Native Plums Taste Like?

European or Japanese plum trees are known for their large, meaty and often sweet fruit. In contrast, North American native plum trees produce fruit that small and tart. Sometimes it can be eaten fresh but most often it's used to make jams, jellies, fruit leathers and liqueurs.

How large are North American Native Plum Trees?

European and Japanese plum trees are often vigorous growers can that can become tall and sprawling trees unless you prune them to keep them compact. In comparison, North American plum trees and shrubs usually grow to be just 10 to 20 feet (3-6 m) tall. If you have a small garden, your challenge may be that these plants love to spread as they form new suckers each year. You can control the suckers by mowing them down or pruning them out if the plant is starting to take up too much space.

Ideal Growing Conditions for North American Plum Trees

Below, I'll outline a few of the popular native North American plum tree species, but in general, these trees thrive in full sun or part shade. Do you have heavy clay or sandy soil? There are some species that can adapt to these conditions. What is important is to choose a variety that will thrive in your climate zone and that can adapt to your unique conditions. Start your research by reaching out to a specialist fruit tree nursery near you to find out what species of wild plums they sell.

Beach plum in bloom with beautiful white blossoms (on the left) and blue beach plums on tree (on the right)). Native North American plum trees.
Beach plum blossoms (left) and fruit (right). You need to plant more than one beach plum shrub in order to have a harvest. Photo credit: Ken Asmus, Oikos Tree Crops.

Are American Wild Plum Trees Beautiful?

One of the features of wild plum trees is that they flower prolifically in the spring and their dazzling blossoms are very fragrant. Wild plum fruit can also be striking, boasting shades of orange, pink, crimson, purples, yellows and blues.

How Long Does it Take for American Wild Plum Trees to Produce Fruit?

It can take up to three years for your wild North American plum tree to produce fruit. And, if you don't plan ahead, your tree or shrub may flower annually, but never produce a harvest! That will depend on whether you have ensured that your tree's pollination needs have been met.

Dark purple beach plums with yellow beach plums placed on them so that it looks like a smiley face. Beach plums are native North American plums.
Beach plums are native North American plums that come in various different colours. Photo credit: Jesse Stevens

Which Plum Trees are Self-Pollinating?

With any fruit tree, a part of the challenge is to ensure that you are satisfying your fruit tree's pollination needs. Some plum trees are self-pollinating, and they produce flowers that contain both male and female reproductive structures. During bloom time, the pollen from the male stamen is transferred to the female pistil of the same flower (or another flower on the same tree) and pollination takes place.   

Some European plum trees are cross-pollinating, which means they need pollen from a genetically different tree to produce fruit. The pollen moves from tree to tree with the help of bees and other beneficial insects. If there are no neighbouring compatible trees, cross-pollination will not occur and your tree will not produce a harvest.

The good news is that many types of American plum trees and European plum trees are self-pollinating and can produce a harvest on their own. But it's important to do your research before buying any plum tree and if it is cross pollinating, you'll need to plant a compatible partner tree nearby.

When choosing a pollination partner for your chosen plum tree, consider the following factors:

  • Cross-pollinating plum cultivars must flower at the same time.
  • They must be genetically different. So, two identical species will not cross-pollinate.
  • European plums and Japanese plums are not usually compatible.
  • The best way to check plum pollination compatibility is to consult with a pollination chart like this one from myperfectplants.com.
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Popular North American Native Plum Tree Cultivars

So, do you think a North American native plum tree might work in your garden? Here are a few popular American plum species to consider.

Beach plums (Prunus maritima): Beach plums have a cult following amongst those that love to turn the harvest into jams, jellies and wine. These North American plum trees are native to the east coast of the United States, from Maine to Virginia and thrive in the sandy soil you’ll find on coastal plains. They are small, shrubby trees typically grow to a height of 10 feet (3 m) or less. The plums they produce come in a wide range of colours including shades of purple, crimsons and yellow. They are known for their small, tart fruit, which is typically about the size of a cherry and has a thin skin and juicy, acidic flesh. You can learn more about native American beach plums in my podcast interview on how to grow beach plums with Ken Asmus of OIKOS Tree Crops.

American Plum (Prunus americana): The American plum is native to much of the eastern United States, from New England to Georgia, and westward to the Great Plains. This small suckering tree typically grows to a height of 12-25 feet (3.5 – 7 m) and it can tolerate many types of soil including heavy clay. The fruit of the American plum is small and round, and the color can range from yellow to red. The taste is variable. Some produce fruit with sweet flesh. Other plants may have sour-tasting fruit.

Chickasaw Plum (Prunus angustifolia): The Chickasaw plum is native to the southeastern United States, from Texas to Florida and northward to Virginia. It is a small tree or large shrub that grows to a height of 10-20 feet (3-6 m) and can thrive in almost any soil ranging from sandy to clay loam. It tolerates some shade but performs best in full sun. The fruit of the Chickasaw plum is small and round and it often starts off red and turns yellow as it ripens. The fruit is tart and juicy. Native Americans traditionally dried these plums for winter sustenance.

Canada Plum (Prunus nigra): While many of these native American plum tree species also grow in Canada, there is also a Canada plum which is a small tree or shrub that can grow to 15 feet tall (4 m) and can survive very cold climates. The edible fruit can be sour and astringent but can still be used for preserves. The main feature of this shrub is that it thrives in the coldest climates and that it has a long blossom time, so it can act as a pollinator for many other types of plum trees.  

The Best Japanese, European and Hybrid Plum Cultivars

Now, native North American plum trees might not be ideal for all applications. In some cases you might still consider planting European or Japanese plums.

There are also hybrid plums that plant breeders like Luther Burbank developed by crossing different plum species to produce hardier trees that would produce sweeter and juicier fruit. You can learn about Luther Burbank in my podcast interview with Rachel Spaeth, the garden curator of the Luther Burbank Home & Gardens in Santa Rosa, California.

Below I've listed some of the most popular cultivars to grow in each category:

Popular European Plum Varieties

European plums (Prunus domestica) are often sweet and delicious right off the tree. Here are some of the top cultivars:

  • Italian Prune plums are oval-shaped with purple-black skin and yellow-green flesh. Italian prune plums are “freestone” plums so it’s easy to separate the flesh from the seed. They have a sweet flavour and are ideal for drying and preserving.
  • Greengage plums have yellow-green skin. They are juicy and wonderful to cook with or eat fresh off the tree.
  • Catalina plums are large and black-skinned with yellow flesh. These firm, juicy and sweet plums are perfect for fresh eating.
Purple plums on tree. These are European prune plums. North American native plums are often smaller and less sweet than their European counterparts.
European plum trees like Italian Prune plums are larger than American plums. Photo credit: OrchardPeople.com.

Popular Japanese Plum Varieties

Japanese plums (Prunus salicina) often bloom earlier than European plums. The fruit is usually softer and juicier but often not quite as sweet as European plums. Some popular options include:

  • Satsuma plums are round and red-skinned. They are wonderful for fresh eating, cooking, canning and preserves.
  • Shiro plums have medium to large and round fruit with yellow skin and a mild, sweet flavour that makes them good for cooking, canning and for pies.
  • Burbank plums were developed by American plant breeder Luther Burbank in the late 1800s. These trees are considered Japanese plum trees due to their parentage. The Burbank plum tree produces large purple-red fruit with amber flesh and it’s tasty fresh off the tree or canned.

Popular Hybrid Plum Varieties

There are also hybrid plum options in which breeders like Burbank crossed different plum species to produce hardier trees that would produce sweeter and juicier fruit. 

  • The Toka plum tree. This is an American Japanese hybrid developed by Dr. N.E Hanson from the South Dakota Experiment Station and it was introduced in 1911. This tree is beautiful with white fragrant blossoms in the spring and sweet-tasting red fruits with yellow flesh. It has a long flowering time, so it is a good pollinizer for other varieties.
  • Patterson Pride plum tree. Dr. Cecil Patterson from the University of Saskatchewan developed this cold hardy tree that can survive even in Canadian zone 2 climates. It produces red skinned fruit with sweet golden flesh. It was introduced in 1960.

Where to buy plum trees

If you want to buy a European, Japanese or hybrid plum tree, you will find a good selection at a specialist fruit tree nursery near you. They should know what cultivars thrive in your region.

If you want to buy an American plum tree, find a native plant nursery near you and ask for recommendations for species that are found in the wild in your area and that are easy to grow.

Now if you’re opting for an American or wild plum tree, you have another option as well. Instead of buying a tree, you can grow it from seed! You can purchase seeds for wild plum trees from specialist growers like Ken Asmus of OIKOS Tree Crops.

Whichever you choose, be sure to research the tree carefully to ensure that it will survive in your climate zone and suit your unique conditions and needs.

Headshot of Susan Poizner

Susan Poizner

Director, OrchardPeople.com Fruit Tree Care Education

Learn more about Susan on the about us page. 

Susan Poizner and the cover of her eBook Grow Fruit Trees That Thrive

FRUIT TREE CARE NEWSLETTER

Sign up for our monthly newsletter and we will send you our eBook "Growing Fruit Trees That Thrive." You can unsubscribe at any time.
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