Plums have been immortalized in poetry by William Carlos Williams, and rightly so — they add a lot of joy to life. Fresh from the icebox, sweet and cold, nothing could be dreamier on a summer day. And then we have plum jams, plum cakes, plum treats of all kinds. There are so many reasons to be excited about plum season!
Plums come in a rainbow of colors, and hundreds of varieties, which can make things feel confusing — which plums to use for what? When and how and where to get good ones? How to store them? Here is everything you need to know about plums for poem-worthy levels of enjoyment all season long (and then some).
When are Plums in Season?
Plum season is typically late June/early July to September. In California, where the majority of the country’s plum crops are grown, they’re in season from May to October.
There are around 300 plum varieties grown and sold across the United States. Such diversity and abundance is a luxury, but trying to get a handle on all of the plum species and sub-groups is dizzying.
To keep things simple, we’re sticking to the basics of the plum variety breakdown. Just know that the selection is vast and think of plum season as an opportunity to explore and discover new treasures.
The two main types of commercially grown plums are European (prunus domestica) and Japanese (prunus salicina).
European plums, aka prune plums, are mainly grown to be turned into dried plums. Their thick skins, high sugar content, and dense flesh make them ideal for drying, and best for baking and jam-making. A tiny percentage (2-3%) of European plums are grown to be sold fresh. Their skins range in color, but their flesh is mainly yellow, sometimes green. Many European plums are oval-shaped. They’re freestone fruits, which means their pits are very easy to remove.
An extra notable European plum is the Green Gage (and the Golden Gage, and any other Gages). They aren’t grown in many regions in the U.S., and aren’t widely distributed, but they’re a special pleasure if you can get your hands on any.
If there’s a plum with thin skin you like eating out of hand, it’s most likely a Japanese plum.
Japanese plums have been bred into countless varieties, and they’re all almost exclusively for eating fresh. Their skins are thin, and they come in every color of the rainbow. Their flesh also has a large color spectrum. The majority are round, but some are oblong and resemble hearts. These are clingstone fruits, meaning the flesh keeps a tight grip on the stone, so trying to halve and pit these plums is always going to be a messy affair.
Plum/apricot hybrids like Pluots, Plumcots, and Apriums are derived from Japanese plums.
Lesser plum species (prunus insititia) worth mentioning are Damsons and Mirabelles. They’re related to European plums, not widely grown, and have brief seasons. Rare Treats! Damsons are dark blueish-purple, very tart, and traditionally used for jam. Mirabelles are sweet, their skins golden yellow with kisses or freckles of red. Both are very small and cute.
Where to Buy Plums
Your local farmers market is going to have the largest selection of plum varieties. The varieties you find will depend on your region, your farmers, and your market, but all will be grown nearby and picked shortly before they’re put on stands for you to buy. Make friends with the farmers and learn about the plums you have to choose from.
When they’re in season, plums from California and Michigan can be found in grocery stores. Some stores sell locally grown plums, and if you’ve got a store like that near you, take advantage.
Yes, there are plums in grocery stores year-round, but there are very few varieties to choose from when they’re out of season, and they’re flown in from very far away. Stick to the season of you want poem-worthy plums.
How to Choose the Best Plum
Whether you’re at a grocery store or a farm stand, go for plums that have blemish-free, wrinkle-free skin. They should feel heavy for their size, and firm. The flower end (the end opposite the stem) should have a little give when gently pressed.
Grocery store plums are shipped while they’re still hard and unripe, and they’re kept cool to slow their ripening speed, so you’re more likely to find plums that are very firm all over. Bring home the ones you like, and they’ll get ripe in time. Once they start softening, you can start inspecting their flower ends.
When you’re at a farmers market, smell the plums you’re considering. Lots of varieties are fragrant, and plums sitting on outdoor market displays are encouraged by the heat to release their perfumes. If they make you swoon, take them home. And remember when you’re at a farmers market that you can always ask your farmers for advice!
How to Store Plums
If you have some plums that need to ripen, put them in a loosely closed paper bag for a day or two. When they’re fully ripe, it’s up to you: do you want to eat cold plums or room temp plums? Act accordingly. But if you’re leaving a bunch of ripe plums at room temp, make sure to finish them before they go bad.
If you have plums that have gotten too soft, freeze them to use in a smoothie, or perhaps this plum sorbet.
How to Freeze Plums
Wash and thoroughly dry. Halve, remove the pit. Place the halves, cut side up, on a baking sheet and move to the freezer. When they’re frozen, put in a plastic bag and remove as much air as possible before sealing and storing in the freezer. These will keep for up to six months.
You can also freeze them whole. Just wash, dry, and toss in a plastic bag. Remove as much air as possible, seal, and freeze.
- Plum Cobbler
- Plum Galette
- Plum Conserve Jam
- Plum Sorbet
- Plum Walnut Skillet Cake
- Plum Upside Down Cake