Act Naturally > To save coastal dunes, here’s a plum good idea

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Once-thriving native plant making a big comeback

In December 2001, the agriculture department of Cornell University released a report on the beach plum plant entitled, “Small Farm Sustainability through Crop Diversification and Value-Added Products.” The report set forth a plan to reintroduce the once-plentiful prunus maritimis to more coastal communities, for two very good reasons: first, as one of few plants that can grow and thrive in pure sand, the deep-rooted plant offers a great way to inexpensively and organically preserve coastal dunes. Second and just as important, the fruit tastes just great.

For these insights, researchers didn’t have to commission a study. They simply could have asked Alma George, whose family has grown beach plums for five generations.

“My great-great-grandfather had beach plums growing on his property, and I grew up harvesting them, year after year,” said George, who now has an orchard of 2,000 beach plum trees on a farm in Ocean View.

Some of those trees, she said, “are just sticks with leaves.” But she expects to produce 700 pounds of fruit this year. “Next year, we’ll double it, if not more.”

As vice president of the Cape May County Beach Plum Association, George is in the vanguard of a growing effort to make the beach plum a commercially viable crop throughout the East Coast.

“The beach plum used to be prevalent in our coastal communities, but in many cases we built on top of it,” said George. Though the indigenous plant grows in abundance at Higbee Beach in Cape May, and at Island Beach State Park near Toms River (“They have to chainsaw them back from the parking lot,” said George), in many cases, the hardy shrub must be brought back. In recent years, both Sea Isle City and Ocean City have planted beach plums, and Ocean City will plant 175 more in November.

Fortunately for these communities, once the plants are in the ground, they require almost no maintenance. The woody shrubs are drought-tolerant, and bend without breaking in bad weather. Their root systems reach deep into the sand or soil for water, creating a maze of sturdy underground tendrils that hold the sand in place.

Cape May County agriculture agent Jenny Carleo said the beach plum is “not in a precarious position, but kind of an exciting position. The association has made great strides in producing and cultivating the plants, and increasing knowledge and awareness of the fruit. That in turn has created a demand for products—beach plum wine, jams and jellies.”

At one time, researchers who recognized the plant’s value for dune restoration and preservation ignored the actual fruit, which has been documented since the 16th century, when its virtues were extolled by explorers Henry Hudson and Giovanni Verrazano.

The researchers “would keep the stone, but throw away the fruit,” said George, with an exasperated laugh. “We showed them the error of their ways.”

She said the fruit tastes different—in her view, better—than typical store-bought plums. “It’s stronger,” she said. “The flesh is sweet, and the skin is tart,” which makes it perfect for home cooking.

The Cape May Beach Plum Association hopes eventually to see the plant growing in profusion all over New Jersey, and beach plum products selling at the level of two other New Jersey favorites, the cranberry and the blueberry.

“I’m a little biased,” said George. “But I think it’s a wonderful fruit.”

Good and good for you

The beach plum is not only tasty, preliminary research indicates that its health-promoting qualities rival those of the cranberry and blueberry, two other Jersey natives long touted for their nutritional benefits.

According to studies done at Rutgers University, consumption of beach plums, like eating cranberries, can help relieve urinary tract infections. And the fruit may contain even more health-sustaining antioxidants than blueberries and cranberries. Antioxidants are said to help stave off heart disease and other serious illnesses, including cancer.

Beach plum wine featured at fest

Natali Vineyards in Goshen now produces a beach plum wine, and will feature the vintage at its Rockin’ Wine Festival, Saturday, Nov. 15 from noon to 5 p.m.

“We are the only winery we know of to make a 100 percent beach plum wine—and that’s in the whole world,” said Natali spokesman Kevin Chelli. “The best way to describe the taste is to think of a plum-flavored Sweet Tart candy.”

Chelli called the wine “perfect for the holidays. We always sell out.”

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