Blossoming beach plums and Verrazzano’s explorers

May 3, 2013

Why would white-blooming shrubs blizzarding our coastal dunes this week bring to mind an Italian explorer?

It all has to do with beach plums. These marble-sized purple fruits grow on one of the many distinctive plants that characterize the thin but remarkable ecosystem where the North American continent and the Atlantic Ocean interface.

Many accounts, including a monument placed along the Boardwalk in Rehoboth Beach in 2008, chronicle Italian explorer Giovanni da Verrazzano’s studies and mapping along the Delaware coast during his 1524 voyage. During that voyage of discovery, it’s believed that Verrazzano’s explorers became the first in recorded history to mention beach plums. His men certainly discovered the shrubs when they rowed to shore and trudged over the dunes to find water, game and whatever other notable things came within their view.

Dutch explorers probing Delaware Bay later gave further recognition to the fruit in the 1600s when they found them in profusion in a section of the shoreline that they subsequently named Pruime Hoek. Nowadays we call it Prime Hook but it still translates in English to Plum Point. The dunes northward from Lewes to Prime Hook continue to host thick drifts of beach plum shrubs whose root structures help strengthen the dunes against wave and wind energy. Beach plum shrubs are particularly well suited for coastal living because they can survive the salt and drought conditions that give a desert-like quality to the dunes.

Another two centuries passed before these distinctive maritime plants received a scientific name: prunus maritima. That name recognizes their kinship with the more common members of the plum family with Asian origins that have long since been cultivated around the world as a commercial fruit. It turns out that prunus maritima thrives in the dunes from Maine to Virginia and tolerates the cold as well as salt and drought. All of that contributes to the intense sweet flavor of the ripe fruit.

The prolific white blossoms we’re seeing now will bring forth fruit over the summer that will ripen in late August and early September. For centuries, residents have taken to the dunes in late summer and gathered beach plums to make jams, jellies and brandy. Researchers at Cornell University are working to develop an integrated system to create a sustainable beach plum industry. They want to expand the small cottage industry in place for many centuries. In Lewes, mother and daughter, both named June Rose Futcher, have been making and selling beach plum jelly each fall for the last several years.

King’s Ice Cream and Chip Hearn at The Ice Cream Store in Rehoboth might be interested in further work at Cornell. At the university’s dairy store, workers there manufactured Beach Plum Comfort Ice Cream. Across the mouth of the Delaware, in Cape May Courthouse, New Jersey, Natale Vineyards may be the only winemaker in the country to be producing commercial quantities of beach plum wine.

Now, if we can only get Sam and Mariah Calagione and their Dogfish team to develop a 60 Minute Beach Plum IPA, the legacy of Verrazzano’s 16th century discovery would be assured. It would have to be better than grog.

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