October 6, 2006

C.U. Orchards Develop Rare Plum Variety

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What started as another Cornell Ph.D. thesis has become a nationwide project to produce beach plums. The plums, about the size of olives, have “been regarded as being a delicacy,” said Prof. Tom Whitlow, horticulture, and principal investigator of the Beach Plum Project.

The project began over ten years ago in Cape Cod, when several farmers began responding to the high demands of beach plum jam. Cornell joined the Beach Plum Project several years later, receiving a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The program involves collecting beach plum seeds from the coastal areas and experimenting with growing them outside of their native areas.

Typically grown in sand dunes along the Northeast coast of the United States, beach plums are rare, wild and not commercialized. Nonetheless, demand is very high, according to Ronald Smolowitz, owner of Coonamessett Farm on Massachussetts’ Cape Cod. Smolowitz has made about 120 jars of beach plum jam, all of which sold as soon as the product hit the shelf. One customer was even so devoted he drove over 70 miles to buy the jam. Jeff LaFleur, a farm owner and member of the Cape Cod Cranberry Growers Association, planted over 200 beach plum plants, harvesting about 100 pounds of plums.

“Cornell has done a great job in generating interest in the product,” LaFleur said. In addition to stirring up hype and helping show the product’s market potential, Cornell has been growing the plums and selecting plants with superior yield. Cornell has led about 30 small-scale production trials throughout the Northeast. So far, the project has not extended to breeding; it is simply selection of the seeds and plant.

Cornell’s orchards now grow beach plums and which have been used in products such as ice cream, sorbet, jams and jellies. Whitlow, a self-described beach plum enthusiast, eats them raw, cooked and even as steak sauce.

Although neither Smolowitz nor LaFleur could quite describe the flavor of beach plums, both agreed that they have a distinct flavor. “Beach plums have a more unusual flavor and people like that,” Whitlow said.

He claims it is the fruit’s smallness in addition to not being genetically altered that makes the flavor so appealing. “The flavor is much more influenced by the skin because the pulp to skin ratio is much lower,” he said.