Wild plums have been treasured by the Chinese for two thousand years. In the United States the biggest crop of commercially grown plums comes from hybrids grown in California out of Asian stocks, which were introduced in the 1870s by Luther Burbank. Burbank brought trees back from Japan, planted them on his farm in Santa Rosa, and through crossbreeding produced many modern varieties still popular today. Plums come in a wide variety of sizes and colors - red, yellow, purple, green, blue, and black. Like most produce, they have a season, and that season is summer.
In addition to California, plums are also cultivated in fruit-growing areas of New England and the Midwest, and there are indigenous varieties that grown from the Mississippi River west to the Rocky Mountains and from Canada to the Gulf States. There are also various lovely regional varieties that abound in different parts of the country, such as the beach plum of the Atlantic Coast, whose astringent fruits are primarily used in jellies and preserves, but these aren't commercially cultivated.
California produces about 90 percent of the commercial crop - more than two hundred different varieties that ripen at different times - from early to late summer, with a few in season into the fall. The following dozen, in order of their appearance, account for the lion's snare of the crop.
Early Season Plums
In mid-May, Red Beauts are the first on the market, with Black-Beauts following around Memorial Day. The Red Beaut has a bright red skin and mid-flavored yellow flesh and ranges in size from size to nine plums per pound. The Black Beaut has a thick, tart skin and very juicy flesh that turns reddish as the fruit matures. It closely resembles the Red Beaut, except that the skin is red to purplish black and the fruit runs a bit larger - from four to six plums per pound. Red Beauts stay on the market through early June, Black Beauts until the end of June.
Burbank's classic Santa Rosa comes next, generally on the market from the first week of June through the fourth of July weekend. I like this variety a lot. The plums have a purplish crimson skin with the light freckling that's characteristic of all Rosa type plums. The flesh is tart and red at the pit, radiating into sweet yellow flesh near the skin. The combination gives them their classic sweet-tart plum flavor. Santa Rosas ranges in size from five to eight plums per pound.
Another good plum, the Black Amber, arrives in early June and continues through mid-July. It has a smooth black skin with amber flesh and a small pit. It is flattish in shape and large in diameter. The size ranges from four to six plums per pound.
The Queen Rosa is a lightly freckled, purplish red plum with juicy, mild, light amber flesh. When cooked or raw it has a tangy flavor, but leaving the skin on adds some sweetness to the cooked fruit. It's available from mid-June to mid-July and ranges in size from three to six plums per pound.
The El Dorado is also available from mid-June to mid-July. It ranges in color from bright red to reddish black with a purple tint. The amber flesh is mellow throughout, and although it's juicy, it retains its firmness in cooking and has a good shelf life. Size ranges from five to eight plums per pound.
Of all the plums, I think the LaRoda is the best. It's available from late June through the end of July. It has a freckled dark red to purple skin that occasionally shows a little yellow background. The skin is thin and tender, and the flesh is golden, sweet and juicy. It's great eaten out of hand, and very tangy when cooked unpeeled. The size ranges from four to seven plums per pound.
The Simka, also known as the "New Yorker" variety, is another good one. It's a larger, heart-shaped plum with a red to reddish purple skin, light freckling and firm golden flesh with sweet flavor. It's available throughout the month of July. Size ranges from three to six plums per pound.
The Friar begins the later-season plums, available beginning in July and going through Labor Day. It's about the most popular of all the plums. A mature Friar has a deep black skin and a small pit. The light amber flesh is juicy and sweet, with a contrasting tart flavor in the skin. It ranges in size from three big plums to seven plums per pound, and it keeps well.
In my business the Kelsey is one of the most valuable plums because its bright green skin is a beautiful contrast to the red and purple varieties on display. As it ripens, the skin turns from green to yellow splashed with red. The sweet, greenish yellow flesh is one of the least tart among the plums. The Kelsey is available from the Fourth of July well into August. Size ranges from three to six plums per pound.
The Casselman, which starts arriving in late July, has good holding qualities that make it available throughout September. It has a bright red to crimson exterior and light freckling. The firm, golden flesh has a tangy, sweet flavor when ripe. Most Casselmans weigh in at six plums per pound.
The Angeleno finishes the plum season. It is a heart-shaped plum with a full dark red to purple-blue skin. The light amber flesh is sweet when fully ripe. Harvest begins the third week in August but because of their excellent keeping qualities, Angelenos can be shipped through Thanksgiving. They generally run from four to six and a half plums per pound.
Plums are generally available during the summer months; see varieties (above) for specific shipping periods.
Choose plums that are firm and plump. A ripe one is tart, sweet and juicy and will give to a gentle squeeze.
Plums are easily ripened at home, just leave them at room temperature in a paper bag with the top loosely closed. (Plums prefer paper to plastic). This concentrates the naturally occurring ethylene gas that helps the fruit ripen. Check the plums daily and remove when the flesh gives to gentle pressure. Either eat ripe plums immediately or store in the refrigerator, where they'll keep for several days.
Bette's Plum Torte
No-Sugar Plum Jam
Other recipes from Produce Pete.