Southerners, like gardeners from other areas, appreciate early spring blossoms. A drive down almost any highway in spring reveals a spectacle as the redbuds and native plums burst into bloom.
Chickasaw plum (Prunus angustifolia) is a plum native to the southern United States and is hardy from USDA Zones 6-9. A member of the Rosaceae (rose) family, it reaches 12 to 20 feet tall and about as wide at maturity. Found mainly in disturbed areas, the small half-inch flowers bloom on the previous year’s wood before the foliage emerges, making them particularly showy. Flowers sport five white petals centered with a mass of prominent pollen-tipped anthers. Although individual flowers are quite small, they are borne in profusion. From a distance all you notice is a mass of white. Pollinators find plentiful nectar and buzz busily among the blossoms.
The thickly branched shrub or small tree forms extensive thickets or colonies by suckering. One DG reader reports that the suckering is not a problem in her landscape because it is in the center of the lawn. Unwanted suckers are kept mowed. Other gardeners appreciate the thicket and allow it to spread at will in areas where it provides shelter and food for numerous songbirds and other wildlife.
Later in summer (June – August), small fruits ¼ - ½ inches which may be bright yellow to red ripen. Quality of the fruit varies, with some being very bitter and others being quite tasty. While this makes a difference to humans, birds and other wildlife are not as particular and consume the fruits readily.
Chickasaw plum is easily grown in almost any soil except very alkaline. Give it full sun for best growth, but partial shade will also produce satisfactory results. A well established tree is very drought tolerant. Salt tolerance makes it an excellent choice for coastal areas. Remove root suckers if colonizing is not wanted, or allow them to spread if space is available. Insects and diseases are not usually a problem, but tent caterpillars may need to be controlled. No spraying is necessary to produce fruit that is free of worms.
Closely related native plums are Prunus americana (American plum) and P. umbellata (flatwoods plum). All the species provide excellent cover and food for birds and other wildlife and plentiful pollen and nectar for bees and butterflies. The fruit makes tasty preserves, jams, and jellies, and floral designers enjoy forcing the branches into flower to embellish their designs.
If you are gardening for wildlife, this plum tree is an excellent choice. Fruit is eaten not only by birds, but also by deer, bear, fox and raccoon. The tree provides a thorny thicket particularly attractive to nesting song and game birds, as well as cover and roosting. In the landscape it is sometimes used to control erosion, as well as for windbreaks and visual barriers.
Chickasaw plum is easy to start from cuttings. Take 8- to 12-inch cuttings from small branches no larger than the diameter of a pencil, score the bark at the bottom of the cutting, and dip in rooting hormone. Place in a well-drained medium and keep moist. In about two months, roots should be established. Cutting away suckers that form around the mother plant is also an easy means of propagation.
Both George Washington and Thomas Jefferson established colonies of Chickasaw plum on their estates. With its many attributes, there is no wonder why this native species persists and is desired by today’s gardeners. Like many of our native plants, a Chickasaw plum adds more to the landscape than just a tree. It adds flowers, fruit, butterflies, birds, and other sights to delight your senses. What more can one expect form a plant?