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Celebrating wild beach plums
8/22/2014 Volume XLVII, No. 34

You’ve probably never picked or tasted a wild beach plum … but it’s not too late!

Beach plums, prunus maratima, grow wild on dunes along the East Coast, although summer visitors who flock to the beaches seeking sun and surf tend to miss the short, weather-gnarled bushes. Throughout most of summer, the fruits are green and unobtrusive … more like olives than the larger purple fruits found at farm stands.

Beach plums have a devoted following, and foragers are known to be secretive about the best places to find them.

“The long-time gatherers have secret spots and favorite bushes, and strangers carrying pails in the dunes are viewed with suspicion,” wrote Cornell University researcher Richard Uva in an article about the fruit’s cultural and scientific aspects. “In a good crop year, the race to harvest is so competitive that the fruit is sometimes picked when barely ripe.”

The Friends of Island Beach State Park don’t mind sharing their secrets, if only once a year. The annual Beach Plum Festival, held in early September, celebrates wild beach plums and Island Beach’s other natural wonders.

The 17th Annual Beach Plum Festival is scheduled for Sunday, Sept. 7, from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the Ocean Beach Bathing Area #1, the first pavilion after the park entrance.

The day’s highlights include plum picking, native plant tours and beach plum jelly-making demonstrations. Beach plum jelly and even beach plum ice cream are for sale. And visitors wishing grow beach plums at home can buy small plants.

Beach plums have a flavor that ranges from astringent when picked early to relatively sweet when ripe. They’re rarely eaten raw, but their tartness gives jams, jellies and other products a distinctive flavor. Believe it or not, even some beers and wines are flavored with beach plums!

Beach plums were first used by indigenous people and later discovered by European settlers. According to Uva, the earliest account of native plums came from explorer Giovanni da Verrazano, who in 1524 spotted them on the Long Island coast and mistakenly recorded them as “damson trees.”

Since then, several coastal land masses have been named after the beach plum, including tiny Plum Island off the northeastern tip of Long Island, the Plum Island barrier beach off Newburyport, Mass., and Prime Hook in Delaware, whose name is a version of the Dutch “Pruime Hoek,” or Plum Point.

The Beach Plum Festival is free, although a $5 donation is requested to support the Friends, a non-profit volunteer group whose mission is to foster public appreciation and stewardship of Island Beach State Park by enhancing educational, recreational and research programs and offering public events.  One of the Friends’ most popular initiatives is the “Osprey cam” that allows the public a close-up view on their computers of the osprey pair that nests there each year.

To learn more about the Friends of Island Beach State Park, visit www.friendsofislandbeach.org. The website includes a full schedule of activities, including surf fishing clinics, kayak tours, clamming clinics and beach cleanups.

And to learn more about preserving New Jersey’s land and natural resources, check out the New Jersey Conservation Foundation website at www.njconservation.org or contact me at info@njconservation.org.

 

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