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Beach plums are a coastal tradition and ode to summer

Generations of East Enders can recall foraging for beach plums along the shore, scouting for a patch of the shrubs, gnarled and windswept from years of surviving the elements.

Coveted, swear-you’ll-never-tell spots, family jam recipes and stories of collecting the dark, tannic fruits on late summer afternoons have been passed down, cherished through the ages. It’s a coastal tradition on par with learning to sail, build a sandcastle, catch a fish.

For others unfamiliar with the fruit, the appeal of the beach plum can be shrouded in secrecy.

“We would make a day of it,” explained Parnel Wickham, a Cutchogue resident whose familial roots in the area can be traced back to 1699. She places the emphasis on “we,” cautioning that this isn’t a solitary activity, but to social one. “For one thing, they have to be picked. And you need help with the pitting. That can be tedious,” Wickham said. “It can be a lot of work, but it’s something you do together. You make a big mess and then you enjoy eating it later.”

Beach plum jam isn’t the type of product you’ll find on a supermarket shelf. Unless you make it yourself, you’ll likely seek it out from one of several local farms that release a limited stock of the ruby ​​red jams, jellies and syrups that are known to sell out quickly.

The native beach plum, or Prunus maritima, offers a glimpse into the past.

Indigenous people, including the Shinnecocks, collected the tart, cherry-like fruits. Early settlers and explorers took note of their presence along the coast, and they served as inspiration for naming areas like Plum Island.

A perennial shrub, the beach plum is native to sandy dunes and grows densely along the Atlantic coast from Maryland to southern Maine. Beach plums blossom in May, producing delicate, cloud-white flowers before setting fruit that ripens in shades of purple and dark blue — and, rarely, crimson and gold — in late August.

“Beach plums can survive pretty adverse conditions,” explained Tom Wickham, who recalls foraging for them with Parnel, his sister, on the dunes in Napeague and along the bay. “We all made beach plum jam — no one eats beach plums raw,” he added. “Well, you can. But they’re pretty sour.”

There have been efforts to tame the elusive species.

In the late 1970s, Tom Wickham began growing approximately 20 shrubs on farmland the family used to own on Ackerly Pond Lane in Southold. “There’s a market for [beach plums,] but picking them wild is hit or miss. You never know from year to year if you’ll get anything at all,” he said.

Despite their ability to thrive in sandy, salty, windy conditions, growing them commercially proved finicky, too.

“They were wild here on the farm,” recalled Clark McCobe, whose family has been farming at Briermere Farms since 1961. The Sound Avenue property stretches all the way to Long Island Sound. Early on, he remembers, his mother and grandmother would pick them.

Nearly 30 years ago, McCombe worked on propagating new plants from their pits and assisted in the research of Richard Uva, Ph.D., who was researching the species in the mid-1990s as a graduate student at Cornell University.

Uva said he’s been interested in beach plums since his childhood summers on Cape Cod, where you’ll find a plethora of roadside stands selling beach plum concoctions.

Beach plums growing at Blossom Meadow Farm in Southold. (Credit: Tara Smith)

“It has an environmental stress-tolerance aspect to it,” he said. “So I thought it was an interesting plant to study.”

His research focused on attempts to bring the crop into wider cultivation, perhaps as a way for traditional fruit farmers to diversify.

“There were some challenges to scaling it up,” Uva said. “There’s a lot of pests and diseases and harvesting is pretty labor intensive.” In addition to the usual variables like weather and pollination, the species is susceptible to brown rot and attractive to plum curculio, a beetle notorious for fruit destruction.

Because of the unpredictable yield and the labor required to prune and pick, beach plums never exactly soared to viability.

“Some years, you’ll have a nice return and some years, almost nothing,” said McCobe, who grows several hundred beach plum plants at Briermere. “It’s hard to gauge.”

Locals and hard-core beach plummers will tell you that the fruit is abundant every other year.

Wickham eventually transplanted his beach plum plants to the main farm, which sits between two salt creeks in Cutchogue. He’s since doubled the number of producing plants and is also growing whole shrubs for people to plant at home. “A fair number of homeowners are interested in planting plum trees in their yard,” Wickham explained, and not necessarily because of the fruit, though delicious. “All of us are interested in promoting native species.”

Laura Klahre has planted several beach plum shrubs at her Blossom Meadow Farm in Southold. “They’re fabulous to have in your own yard since they bloom in the early spring, they’re great for early spring pollinators to nosh on as well,” she said.

Klahre, who raises mason bees and other native pollinators, says they’re a favorite for the bees along with native blueberry bushes. “Everything is so interconnected with the food web and it’s best to plant native in your yard,” she said.

Her farm is known for award-winning jams and creative combinations, like red raspberry and blood orange, which won an International Flavor Award in 2021. When beach plums ripen, she mixes them with local blueberries for a blueberry and beach plum jam in September. “There’s something so magical when you put those fruits together. They’re two native species and balance each other out really well.”

While jam is a very traditional use for the fruit, there are other surprising ways to use beach plums.

Some of the fruit grown at Briermere, for example, makes its way to Greenhook Ginsmiths in Brooklyn, where it’s made into a beach plum gin liqueur, a sweet-tart infusion made by soaking whole plums in dry gin for seven months with a touch of Turbinado sugar.

Leslie Merinoff of Matchbook Distilling in Greenport said she, too, has beach plums soaking in alcohol for an eventual release. She, of course, was mum on her foraging locations but let us in on another secret: It’s easy to infuse your own gin at home by taking beach plum jam, combining it with the spirit in an airtight container and straining it off before use. “It makes a really pretty beach plum liquor and adding in a flower can be really nice. Lavender can be a nice addition and it doesn’t take too much,” Merinoff explained.

During PawPaw pop-up dinners, chef Taylor Knapp has also found intriguing ways to pay homage to a native Long Island fruit. He said it pairs incredibly well with game meats. Some past preparations include cooking the plums down into a jammy sauce paired with local Crescent duck or foie gras, making a puree to add to an ice cream base (think Strawberry ice cream with fruit bits mixed in), served as a condiment for raw oysters or in a dry gin martini and even using them for umeboshi, traditional briny Japanese cured plums that are sour and salty.

“It goes along with everything else we do, trying to take relatively normal ingredients and change them just a little bit to make something really interesting,” Knapp said. “Something that might not be what people typically expect.”

Foraging is also close to Knapp’s heart, as PawPaw is named for an indigenous fruit to his native Indiana, where he used to forage for them with his grandpa in the forest.

“I have a good patch,” Knapp said of his beach plums. “And it’s probably not just my patch,” he added, laughing.

Last year, Bedell Cellars winemaker Richard Olsen-Harbich was inspired to make a small batch of beach plum brandy, for personal consumption, as well as from the North Fork terroir. “Beach plum is one of the flavor and aroma profiles that many people have associated with our red wines,” he explained, particularly the merlot, cabernet franc and Malbec.

“There’s this wild plum character in the background of our red wine and part of the larger narrative about the terroir here,” he said, which is driven by the maritime climate. “It’s what makes wine so interesting.”

He used a bushel from Wickham’s, pitted them and then, just as he’d do in the winemaking process, crushed them. “With any brandy, the first thing you have to do is make wine,” Olsen-Harbich said. The result was a vibrantly colored, almost magenta wine that was then distilled into a spirit resembling an eau de vie, with both fiery, dark fruit notes and more mellow vanilla ones as well.

Whether you forage for them in the wild or pick up freshly harvested beach plums from a local farm stand, there’s something deeply gratifying about using a native fruit that’s a link to terroir and history. Preserving them, by making a jam or infusing a spirit, is a way to savor the last of summer all winter long.

“You have to be on the lookout for them, because there’s this perfect time to pick,” Klahre said, a window between when they ripen and when the birds have discovered that. “It’s a celebration of a moment in time.”

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