The landscape department, probably like many others across campus, has its share of secrets, little things nobody else knows about. My inside mole at the Grille keeps me updated when the linzertorte cookies are around. The view from the Bi-Hall roof after a snowstorm is spectacular. And, there’s a pretty spectacular plum tree on campus.
Plums are in the Rose family, the genus Prunus, which it shares with Cherries, Peaches, Apricots, and Almonds. The full latin name of the plum is Prunus domestica, The latin genus stolen from the greek word προῦνον (prounon), and the specicies domestica from the botanists term for “such a long and muddled history of hybridization we can’t possibly straighten it out”. It is no exaggeration to state that plums have been cultivated for thousands of years-Pliny the Elder writes of Apricots, stating them to be a type of plum, and a 6000 year old apricot pit was found in an archeological dig in Yerevan, the capital of Armenia. The earliest Prunus appear in the fossil record in the middle Eocene, about 45 million years ago.
Our plum is one of the first trees to bloom on campus, at about 80 degree days. In a good year, about 50% of the blossoms are pollinated, and bear fruit. Dry condidtions in the late spring will cause the fruit to drop while still small, and overly wet conditions are prime for Brown Mold, as unattractive as it sounds. Most plums are covered in a white waxy coating-this is a epicuticular wax that protects the fruit from UV light and also repels water.
There are many cultivars of plum. I’m betting, though, that our plum is a popular (and hardy, fortunately) variety known as Stanley. It’s a beautiful blue-purple color, with a golden meaty center, surrounded by a small pit. It was bred in the New York State Agricultural Experiment Station, part of Cornell University, located in Geneva. The station is the mecca of hardy fruit hybridization, and brought us the Empire and Cortland apple. Stanley is literally the plum all others are now compared against. Richard Wellington developed the Stanley plum in 1926-when he started at the station, there was estimated to be 1 million plum trees in the state of New York.
Plums have a greater variety than other tree fruits, coming in many colors, sizes, sugar contents, and textures. They are an excellent source of anti-oxidants, more so than tomatoes, bannanas, apples and oranges. Marketeers are busy trying to sell us “dried plums”, hoping we forget grandmother’s name for them, the evil and dreaded prune. A sugar plum, aside from dancing in your head, is by law a plum with greater than 20% sugar content, at least according to the California Tree Fruit Agreement.
I enjoyed selling plum trees in my retail days. I was forever talking customers out of apples, as they aren’t really a tree as much as a pet, requiring greater care than anybody realizes. (Leave the apples to the experts-there is sanity in bulk) Plums, however, are carefree, without the serious pests and diseases of other tree fruits, and are self fertile, meaning one tree is all you need. Stanley should be hardy in most of the Champlain Valley, with perhaps the occasional late frost nipping the buds.
Oh yeah. I forgot to tell you where the tree is.