Among the foods eaten at the first Thanksgiving dinner were wild plums - probably, considering the date and climate, in the form of prunes, for the Indians preserved plums by drying them. They do not appear to have been a great success, for the Memorandum of March 16, 1629 - the shopping list of the Massachusetss Bay Colony - includes plum pits for planting among the seeds demanded by the colonists, and the Pilgrims did indeed plant European plums. (To the north, the French also imported European plums into Canada.)
The first settlers complained about the quality of American plums, naturally enough, for they were comparing them with Prunus domestica, the European plum, which had 2,000 years of cultivation behind it. American plums at that time were wild. New England Indians planted plum stones, but did not cultivate them; they were allowed to grow as they would, without further attention, and the Indians picked whatever they produced.
The plums of the first Thanksgiving were probably of one or the other, if not both, of two species: Prunus americana, then and now the most important native plum, or Prunus maritima, the beach plum, still something of a New England specialty.
Prunus americana enjoys a good many other names besides that of American plum - August plum, goose plum, hog plum, sloe, yellow plum - so many, indeed, that there is probably confusion between it and other native species. The right one is essentially a yellow plum, which sometimes passes through various shades of reddish yellow to become, in some varieties, frankly red.
Prunus americana has been much improved since 1621, and new varieties have been developed, but it has never been able to overcome the 2,000-year headstart of the European plum. Perhaps nobody tried very hard, for there was little incentive to work on an inferior plum when the already perfected foreign import was growing splendidly in the United States, especially just behind the first coastal range of mountains along the Pacific coast, where 80 percent of all America's plum trees flourish.
While imported species have made a place for themselves in the United States, the American plum tree, even in its improved forms, has hardly been planted abroad, with one notable exception - that of the Jefferson plum, developed in 1825 in Albany, N.Y., by Judge J. Buell, who named it, of course, in honor of the third president of the United States. The Jefferson plum today is one of the favorites of England, where it is widely grown. Otherwise I know of no significant planting of American trees abroad except in Madagascar, and even there its fruit is eaten only sparingly.
Uniquely American is the beach plum, found on seashores (it usually refuses to ripen if moved inland out of smelling distance of salt air) from Maine to Virginia, with occassional stragglers emerging as far south as the Gulf of Mexico.
It is commercially non-existent, unless you count the jars of jelly offered on roadside stands at fancy prices by individuals who have made it at home. The beach plum season is an event in New England, whose citizens turn out en masse to pick beach plums from their low bushes or small trees, and have been doing so ever since Edward Winslow in 1621 and Francis Higginson in 1629 first called attention to the fruit.
The beach plum is globular and small, half an inch to an inch in diameter, ripens from a pinkish hue to purple (in September and October in New England), and has a tough skin; but the flesh is juicy, and its flavor suggests the guave.
My experience is that it is not usually eaten fresh, but it makes excellent preserves, jam, and above all jelly (superb as an accompaniment to roasts), which seems to be almost the rule for astringent fruits - consider, for instance, the quince and the crabapple.
Despite its name, the seaside plum of Florida, Coccolobis uvifera, is not a beach plum nor, indeed, a plum of any kind, but, curiously, a member of the buckwheat family. It is also called the sea grape, and does look more like a grape than a plum. Both wild and cultivated varieties are used to make jelly.
There seems to be a tendency to call any American wild plum a sloe, even when it has little in common with the European plums of that category, so we have the American sloe, Prunus alleghaniensis, a usefully resistant fruit, and the sloe of the South, Prunus umbellata, a small tree found in Georgia and Florida, whose pleasantly acid fruit is used mostly for making preserves.
In the history of the opening up of the West, wild plums are often mentioned as important in the diet of the pioneers, but it is not always easy to tell which plums they were - or, indeed, if they were plums at all, for the pioneers were not interested in botany. They were interested in food. Thus they gave the name of ground plum to Astralagus caryo-carpus of the Mississippi valley, which is not a plum (that is, not a member of the genus Prunus ), a negligible detail in comparison with the fact it was edible either cooked or raw.
An immigrant of the first westward [WORD ILLEGIBLE] that which preceded the Gold Rush reported that "the native plum grows on a dwarf bush, perhaps 10 to 12 inches high, and has its flavor of a peach." This testimony came from Fort Laramie, Wyo., which seems a little far north for the Texas plum, Prunus [WORD ILLEGIBLE] pala - though it is a hardly plant which can withstand cold - and a little too far east for Prunus subcordata, the Sierra plum, Pacific plum, Oregon plum or western plum, a large red pleasantly acid fruit which was gathered avidly by Indians and whites alike. Possibly this was another plum which was not a plum.
The early settlers did not worry much about the names of the fruits they ate, nor were they always too fussy even about their taste or their condition. Writing of the third wave of pioneers, those who broke the plains two-thirds of the way through the 19th century, after the gold fever had subsided, Richard Osborn Cummings informed us, in "The American and His Food":
"Wild fruits, particulary the plum, were gathered along streams and preserved in barrels of spring water over which a scum quickly formed. The plains dwellers were happy to have this sort of preserves even though it was sour and unpalatable."