Plums are sweet tree fruit related to peaches and nectarines and are great for eating fresh, cooking and baking, canning, freezing and preserving, depending on the plum type. The four types of plums grown in the United States are Japanese, Damson, European and American plums, and each have different growth requirements and levels of sweetness. Understanding different types of plums will help you decide which types to plant and how to eat or prepare them.
European plums are the most widely planted plums because they do not always require cross-pollination to bear fruit and grow in a variety of environmental conditions through out the U.S. European plums are best for eating fresh or canning because they are sweeter and less juicy than other types of plums. Some varieties, such as flavourful, oval-shaped Seneca plums, are sweet enough to eat fresh right off the tree while others, such as the even sweeter purple Italian plums, are ideal for drying. Stanley plums are the most versatile and widely-adapted variety and are great for eating fresh, cooking, baking and canning. Other varieties include French and German prune plums and Reine Claude plums.
Although a variety of European plums, damson plums are considered a separate type of plum because they are very tart, not sweet like other European varieties. Because of their tartness, use damson plums for cooking and preserving into jams and jellies. Varieties of damson plums include Shropshire and French damson.
Delicate Japanese plums, which originated in China but came to the US through Japan, always require cross-pollination with other Japanese, American or Japanese-American hybrid varieties to bear fruit. Japanese plums also bloom in early spring but are not tolerant of cold conditions, making them more vulnerable to frost damage. Ranging from yellow to dark reddish purple in colour, Japanese plums are larger, juicier and less sweet than European plums, making them best for cooking and preserving. However, some varieties, including the dark red Satsuma and the crimson-skinned, purple- and yellow-fleshed Santa Rosa, are ideal for eating fresh or canning. Other varieties include methley, Shiro, Ozark premier, Burbank and elephant heart plums.
American plums, also called bush or wild plums, combine the hardiness of European plums with the flavour of Japanese plums but are easier to grow than both. Although native to the eastern and central U.S., American plums can grow anywhere that European and Japanese plums can't, including areas with harsh winter conditions. Despite their adaptability to a variety of soils and other environmental conditions, American plums are prone to disease and pests. American plums are usually yellow or red and, with their sweet flavour and high pectin and acid content, are best for preserving and making jelly or jam but are also good for fresh eating.