Plums are fleshy, smooth skinned stone fruits which have been cultivated for thousands of years. These flavorful, juicy fruits can be used in a wide range of dishes, from delicate fruit pastries to fruit salads, and they are typically readily available at most markets in the summer, when they are in season. Plums are grown throughout the temperate zones of the world, with hundreds of varieties under active cultivation from tiny yellow versions to monstrous lustrous purple ones.
Archaeological evidence suggests that the plum may be one of the oldest cultivated fruits, with only the apple having an older association with humans. Thousands of years of cultivation has yielded a rich array of varieties which come in a range of colors and sizes. In all cases, plums are characterized by crisp, juicy flesh with a flavor which ranges from sweet to tart, and many cultivars acquire a faintly cloudy surface as they ripen. Plums also have a deep groove along one side.
Fresh plums can be eaten out of hand, added to fruit salads, or served with things like yogurt and granola. Plums can also be baked into pies and other pastries, canned, or turned into preserves like plum jam. Dried plums, better known as prunes, have some infamous associations for many people in the West, since they are often recommended to people suffering from constipation, thanks to their high fiber content. Dried plums are also used extensively in Asian cuisine, where they may be candied, ground into pastes, and included in both sweet and savory dishes.
When selecting plums at the market, look for firm varieties without any soft spots. Many plums have a naturally speckled appearance, but obvious discolorations are signs that the fruit may be past its prime. Plums are climacteric fruits, which means that they will continue to ripen and develop flavor after they are picked, so many orchards take advantage of this and pick plums early, when they are less susceptible to bruising.
If you live in USDA zones three through eight, you can grow plums in your own garden. Plums are extremely hardy and actually somewhat famous for “volunteering,” as you may have noticed if you've ever tossed a plum pit into the garden and seen a plum tree a few months later. Like other fruit trees, plum trees like a warm, sheltered environment, regular pruning, and occasionally deep fertilization, which encourages them to develop strong, healthy roots and to put out lots of fruit. Plums also have lovely flowers, so they can be ornamental as well as productive.