Table of Contents
Reid, W. and K.L.B. Gast. 1993. The potential for domestication and
utilization of native plums in Kansas. p. 520-523. In: J. Janick and J.E.
Simon (eds.), New crops. Wiley, New York.
The Potential for Domestication and Utilization of Native Plums in Kansas
William Reid and Karen L.B. Gast
- GENETIC DIVERSITY
- POTENTIAL FOR DOMESTICATION
- Cultivar Development
- Pest Problems
- Mechanical Harvest
- SANDHILL PLUM PRODUCT DEVELOPMENT
- Fig. 1
- Fig. 2
- Fig. 3
- Fig. 4
- Fig. 5
During the 19th century, Great Plains settlers demonstrated great interest in
the domestication and utilization of North American plum species (Prunus
spp.) (Bailey 1898; Goff 1897). In central and western Kansas, native plums
represented the most reliable source of fresh fruit for many farm families
(Kindscher 1987). By 1901, 305 native plum cultivars had been described,
including 37 inter-specific hybrids (Waugh 1901). Interest in native plums
waned during the 20th century, as mechanized farming and an increasingly
efficient transportation system ushered in an age of agricultural
specialization. By 1990, only five crops (wheat, maize, sorghum, soybeans, and
hay) accounted for nearly 99% of the value of crops produced in Kansas (Byram
1990). Today, the decline in profits earned from producing traditional grain
and forage crops has lead many farmers to search for new crops with greater
profit potential. This search for agricultural diversification in the wheat
belt has rekindled an interest in the domestication and utilization of native
plums as a high value, speciality crop.
Eight species of native plum are found in Kansas, including P.
americana Marsh., P. angustifolia Marsh., P. besseyi Bailey,
P. gracilis Engelm. & Gray, P. hortulana Bailey, P.
mexicana S. Wats., P. munsoniana Wight & Hedrick, and P.
rivularis Scheele (Great Plains Flora Assn. 1986). Of these species, P.
americana, P. angustifolia, P. hortulana, and P. munsoniana, are
collected locally and processed into jams, jellies, and preserves in home
kitchens. One species, P. angustifolia, has recently become the basis
for a growing cottage industry in Kansas.
Prunus angustifolia can be found growing from Maryland to Florida in the
east then westward to Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas (Little 1977). The
discontinuous distribution of P. angustifolia (Fig. 1) led Sargent
(1965) to speculate that this species originated in the west and was moved
eastward by native Americans and has since become naturalized in the
southeastern United States.
Also known as the sandhill plum in Kansas (Stephens 1973), P.
angustifolia forms large thickets in the sandy pastures of the central and
western portions of the state. Large fruit size, small narrow leaves, and a
dwarfed appearance led nineteenth century botanists to label the sandhill plum
P. angustifolia watsoni, to distinguish it from the Chickasaw
plum, P. angustifolia, common in southeastern states (Waugh 1903).
Although modern botanists do not recognize the sandhill plum as a separate
sub-species or botanical variety, the Kansas population of P.
angustifolia seems uniquely adapted for growth in a climate characterized
by high heat (40°C) and drought in summer and bitter cold (-30°C) in
The sandhill plum is a much-branched shrub usually less than 2 m high.
Thickets up to 20 m across are quickly formed by root suckers. Bright
yellow-green leaves that are folded lengthwise help make sandhill plum colonies
easily recognizable in the prairies of Kansas. Leaves are simple, alternate,
and narrowly elliptical. Twigs are slender, red, glabrous, and often end in a
spine. Many branches grow in a distinctive zig-zag pattern. Small white
flowers emerge in early April before leaf burst. Flowers have 5 white rounded
petals, 20 stamens, and a single egg-shaped ovary. Fruits ripen from early
July to late August. Fruits are globose, average 2.1 cm across, and vary in
skin color from orange-yellow to deep red (Fig. 2).
In 1990, we initiated a study to measure the genetic diversity of P.
angustifolia in Kansas by establishing a planting of 120 seedlings. Bushes
used in this study were produced from seed collected from a native plum
population located near Pratt, Kansas in 1988. Fifty-nine bushes produced
their first fruit crop in 1991. Fruit weight varied from 2.6 to 13.8 g and
fruit skin color from yellow to dark red. The orange-yellow flesh of sandhill
plums contained from 9.0 to 19.4% soluble solids and were highly acid averaging
One bush produced fruit that averaged 2.7 cm in diameter as compared to
'Methley', a Japanese plum, which averaged 3.0 cm in diameter (Norton et al.
1990). However, fruit size in sandhill plum is strongly influenced by crop
load (Fig. 3). Differences in total bush yield accounted for 44% of the
variation in fruit size with the remaining variation in fruit size due to
The selection of sandhill plum cultivars high in soluble solids is very
important to the Kansas plum processing industry. Our seedling sandhill plum
population averaged 14.3% soluble solids compared to an average of 17% for 9
Japanese plum cultivars (Norton et al. 1990). We did identify individual
sandhill plum bushes that produced fruit containing 19.4% soluble solids.
Fruit was harvested from our seedling planting from July 3 to Sept. 11 with the
majority of fruit harvested during late July and early August. The harvest
season per bush varied from 1 to 7 weeks and averaged 3.6 weeks. The heaviest
yielding bushes had the longest harvest season and produced over 4 kg of fruit.
Bush form varied widely. In the year prior to our first fruit crop, bushes
could be easily rated as either prostrate, spreading, bushy, or upright.
Precocity in sandhill plum seems closely associated with the prostrate growth
form. The highest yielding bushes in the first year of fruiting were those
that grew nearly horizontally (Fig. 4) but this growth form is the least
desirable horticulturally. Fruit-laden limbs dropping on the ground were more
prone to fruit rots and were difficult to harvest.
Evidence of bacterial spot infection caused by Xanthomomas campestris
pv. pruni (Smith) Dye could be found on all bushes in the planting.
Disease severity increased with fruit yield because of the negative influence
of fruit production on vegetative growth. Those bushes with little or no fruit
crop were able to outgrow the spread of the bacterial infection.
Observations of the small sample of sandhill plum germplasm described above
indicate that sufficient genetic diversity exists within the species for rapid
crop improvement. Increased fruit size and higher soluble solids would lead
the list of objectives for developing sandhill plum cultivars suited for the
processing industry. Additional crop improvement objectives should include a
condensed ripening season, an upright growth form, and resistance to bacterial
A limited search of rural Pratt County, Kansas identified two thickets of that
produced ample quantities of sandhill plums averaging 2.6 and 2.7 cm in
diameter. A more detailed search should yield a sufficient number of superior
individuals to begin screening for possible commercial cultivars.
Prolific root suckering by P. angustifolia will make the commercial
culture of this plum on its own roots impractical. Fortunately, P.
angustifolia is graft-compatible with many of the non-suckering rootstocks
that have been developed for other diploid plum species (Okie 1987). Growth
and yield responses of sandhill plums propagated onto these Prunus rootstocks
are not documented.
The sandhill plum is susceptible to many of the same pests that attack
commercial peach and plum orchards. Plum curculio, Conotrachelus
nenuphar Herbst, is the primary insect pest of sandhill plum. Fruit drop
and fruit damage caused by this insect must be controlled if commercial
plantings of the sandhill plum are to be successful. Major disease problems
include brown rot [Monilinia fructicola (Wint.) Honey] of the fruit and
bacterial leaf spot (Xanthomonas campestris pv. pruni (Smith)
Dye). There seems to be little natural resistance to either of these diseases
within P. angustifolia. However, bacterial spot resistance has been
identified in P. cerarsifera Ehrh. (Byrne 1989).
Chemical controls for the major pests of sandhill plum are widely available.
Since sandhill plum is legally a plum, growers may apply any pesticide
registered for use on European and Japanese plums for control of insect,
disease, and weed pests.
Acceptance of sandhill plum as a crop in Kansas would depend in part on the
availability of mechanical harvesting equipment. Fortunately, the dimensions
and growth habit of the sandhill plum are close to those of the highbush
blueberry. Harvesters developed for the blueberry industry should be easily
adapted to sandhill plum harvest.
Sandhill plum jelly has been a regional favorite ever since the early settlers
discovered abundant plum thickets on the Kansas prairie (Kindscher 1987).
Until recently, sandhill plum jams and jellies were produced only in rural
family kitchens for home consumption. With the rapid rise of consumer interest
in regional and/or speciality foods, two Kansas food companies have begun
manufacturing sandhill plum products for distribution nationally. Fruit is
collected from uncultivated thickets and purchased for $1.10/kg. Products
manufactured from the sandhill plum are marketed as uniquely Kansan and command
as much as $17.50/kg.
Sandhill plums make distinctive fruit products that are often described as
pleasingly tart with an apricot-like flavor. Besides the traditional jams and
jellies, four additional Sandhill plum products have been developed by the
Value-Added Center at Kansas State University. These include a pancake syrup,
a fruit topping for ice-cream, a naturally sweetened fruit spread, and an
artificially sweetened fruit spread. The manufacturing process for all six
Sandhill plum products is outlined in Fig. 5.
Continued expansion of the sandhill plum industry will depend on the
domestication of P. angustifolia. The rich genetic diversity found both
within this species and among all native Kansas plums offer tremendous
opportunities for crop development. Improvements in fruit size, soluble
solids, and bush form can be made rapidly through careful examination of
seedling populations. The domesticated Sandhill plum of the future is
envisioned as a bush fruit adaptable to mechanical harvest with technology
borrowed from the blueberry industry. Successful domestication and market
development will provide Kansas farmers with an additional crop and allow them
to reap the economic benefits of agricultural diversification.
- Bailey, L.H. 1898. Sketch of the evolution of our native fruits. Macmillan,
- Byram, T.J. 1990. Kansas farm facts 1990. Kansas State Board of Agr.,
- Byrne, D.H. 1989. Inbreeding, coancestry, and founding clones of
Japanese-type plums of California and the southeastern United States. J. Amer.
Soc. Hort. Sci. 114:699-705.
- Goff, E.S. 1897. The culture of native plums in the northwest. Wis. Agr.
Expt. Sta. Bul. 63.
- Great Plains Flora Association. 1986. Flora of the Great Plains. Univ. Press
of Kansas, Lawrence.
- Kindscher, K. 1987. Edible wild plants of the prairie, an ethnobotanical
guide. Univ. Press of Kansas, Lawrence.
- Little, E.L. 1977. Atlas of United States trees. Vol. 4. Minor eastern
hardwoods. USDA For. Serv. Misc. Pub. 1342.
- Norton, J.D., G.E. Boyhan, D.A. Smith, and B.R. Abrahams. 1990. 'AU-Rubrum'
plum. HortScience 25:1311-1312.
- Okie, W.R. 1987. Plum rootstocks, p. 321-360. In: R.C. Rom and R.F. Carlson
(eds.). Rootstocks for fruit crops. Wiley, New York.
- Sargent, C.S. 1965. Manual of trees of North America. Vol. 2. Dover Pub.,
- Stephens, H.A. 1973. Woody plants of the north central plains. Univ. Press
of Kansas, Lawrence.
- Waugh, F.A. 1901. Plums and plum culture. Orange Judd, New York.
- Waugh, F.A. 1903. Systematic pomology. Orange Judd, New York.
Fig. 1. The distribution of Prunus angustifolia in North America
Fig. 2. Sandhill plum fruits are borne in clusters of 1 to 3. The
fruits pictured here were light orange with a red blush and averaged 2.5 cm in
Fig. 3. The relationship between yield and fruit weight of 59 seedling
sandhill plum bushes. The regression line (solid line) is bounded by 95%
confidence limits (dashed lines).
Fig. 4. The relationship between bush shape and fruit yield among 120
sandhill plum seedlings.
Fig. 5. A flow diagram for the manufacturing process of six sandhill
plum products currently being produced in Kansas. Items enclosed in an oval
represent ingredients derived from the sandhill plum. Additional ingredients
are enclosed in rectangles, and final products are enclosed in hexagons.
Last update September 15, 1997