Wild Red Plum or Yellow Plum TreeWild Red, or Yellow Plum (Prunus Americana, Marsh.)-A graceful little tree, 15 to 20 feet high, with thorny limbs. Bark thick, grey. Leaves oval, taper pointed, sharply toothed. Flowers in April, before the leaves, in lateral umbels. Fruit globose, red or yellow, with pleasant taste, but covered with leathery, acid and puckery skin. Pit, with two sharp edges.
Preferred habitat, moist woods and river banks. Distribution, New York to Texas and Colorado. Uses: Good stocks on which to graft less hardy varieties. Deserves planting as an ornamental, and cultivation to improve its fruit.
In the woods that bordered the prairie watercourses were occasional open spaces, often swampy in times of high water. Here the wild plum took possession and spread into dense thickets. The timber land about was owned by farmers who lived on the prairies, but the plums belonged by common consent to the community at large, just as did the nut trees and the wild grapes.
In April these plum thickets were white with bloom. Bees hung over the nectar-laden blossoms, as if intoxicated. Indeed, the fragrance was so sweet it was overpowering; and in hot weather the nectar often fermented and turned sour before the petals fell. It was good luck if a brisk wind were blowing when plum blossoms opened, for experience had taught that:
"You need a breeze
To help the bees
To set a crop of plums."
After the bloom, thoughts of plums were banished until the days grew shorter and the autumn haze settled on the woods. Then came a sharp frost one night, and everybody knew what the signal meant.
"Do you calculate to go a-plummin' this fall?" The question was quietly put in father's judicial tones, but it sent an electric thrill from head to toes of every youngster. Mother's reply sent an answering current, and the enthusiasm of the moment burst all bounds. "Well, you'd better go this afternoon. I can spare the team and wagon, and I guess John is big enough to drive. There's no use in goin' at all if you can't go right off."
So mother and the children rode out of the yard, she sitting with her young driver on the spring seat, the rest on boards laid across the wagon box behind. What a jouncing they got when the wheels struck a stone in a rut! But who cared for a trifle like that? John's reckless driving but brought nearer the goal of their heart's desire.
A lurid colour lightened the plum thicket as it came in sight. The yellow leaves were falling and the fruit glowed on the bending twigs. Close up the wagon is drawn; then all hands pile out, and the fun really begins. "How large and sweet they are this year!" Mother knows how to avoid the puckery thick skin in eating plums. The youngsters try to chew two or three at once and their faces are drawn into knots. But they soon get used to that.
Now the small folk with pails are sent to pick up ripe plums under the trees, and warned against eating too many. "Remember last year," says mother-and they remember. The larger boys spread strips of burlap and rag carpet under the fullest trees, in turn, and give their branches a good beating that showers the plums down.
With difficulty the boys and girls make their way into the thicket; but torn jackets and aprons and scratched knuckles can be mended-such accidents are overlooked in the excitement of filling the grain sacks with the ripe fruit. How fine "plum butter" will taste on the bread and butter of the noon lunch when winter comes and school begins! (The Pennsylvanian's love for "spreads" on his bread leavened the West completely.)
Other neighbours have come, and started in with a vim. It seems unreasonable to take any more. The bags are full, and there are some poured loose into the wagon box. Besides, everybody is tired, and John shouts that the hazel nuts are ripe on the other side of the log road.
A great grapevine, loaded with purple clusters, claims mother's attention. There will probably be no better chance for grapes this fall, and the sun is still an hour high. John chops down the little tree that supports it, and the girls eagerly help to fill the pails with the fruit of the prostrate vine, while John goes back to command the hazel-nut brigade and see that no eager youngster strays too far.
Mother's voice gives the final summons, and the children gather at the wagon, tired but regretful for the filled husks that they must leave behind on the hazel bushes. A loaded branch of the grapevine is cut off bodily, and lifted into the wagon. The team is hitched on, and the happy passengers in the wagon turn their faces homeward.
Such was the poetry of pioneer life. Pleasures were simple primitive, hearty-like the work-closely interlinked with the fight against starvation. There was nothing dull or uninteresting about either. The plums and grapes were sweetened with molasses made from sorghum cane. Each farmer grew a little strip, and one of them had a mill to which everyone hauled his cane to be ground "on the shares."
Who will say that this "long sweet'nin"' was poor stuff, that the quality of the spiced grapes suffered for lack of sugar, or that any modern preserves have a more excellent flavour than those of the old days made out of the wild plums gathered in the woods? And this is also true: There is no more exhilarating holiday conceivable than those half days when mother took the children and "went a-plummin'."