This delicious fruit is free for the taking across the East Bay

You’ve seen cherry plums spattered on the sidewalk and smashed them underfoot, but they’re actually a forager’s dream.

Food writer Maria Finn snags some wild plums from a Bay Area tree. Credit: Marla Aufmuth

Welcome to East Bay Nosh’s local produce week, during which we’ll highlight stories of urban farming, growing your own food and dining off the land. You can see all the stories from this package on the Local Produce Week page.

When I moved from New York to the Bay Area in 2005, I arrived with one of the Easterners’ common fantasies about California: that you can plant a stick in the ground and it will grow. I couldn’t imagine plucking fruit from a tree in your backyard. As I discovered Meyer lemons, Tuscan rosemary and Japanese persimmons, California felt like an Eden.

Two years later, when we bought a house in Moraga, I was excited about the two pear trees in the backyard, remnants of the town’s original orchards, and a mystery tree that produced a delicate white flower, followed by small red-skinned fruit. 

“It’s a cherry!” my husband proclaimed. He loves cherries and thought they were Rainier. But when he took a bite he tasted tart, not sweet. The fruit had yellow flesh. Clearly it was some kind of sour cherry. 

Those were no cherries. 

Locals told me that we had discovered the “wild plum,” or “cherry plum,” the common names for two plum species found in the Bay Area, trees that are often ignored or under-appreciated for their tart fruit, likely due to their messy reputation. In suburban backyards, I saw the plums raked up and thrown away. After moving to Berkeley in 2017, I saw them splattered across sidewalks. I couldn’t understand why. 

A tree commonly referred to as a wild plum bearing fruit on Spruce Street in mid May. Credit: Joanne Furio

The genus prunus includes 430 species and many produce small cherry-like fruits. 

Locally, however, “When you talk about the wild plum, most people consider that to be the Prunus americana,” said Dan Gallagher, the City of Berkeley’s senior forestry supervisor and an arborist. That was the tree in my Moraga backyard.

Though it has “wild” in its name, the tree is not native to California. In fact, Gallagher said, Prunus americana came from locales farther east and brought here. 

This is the tree that produces fruit people usually use for jams and jellies, Gallagher said, a plum smaller than the European and local varieties like the popular Santa Rosa plum. 

In Moraga, once I knew I was dealing with a plum, I embraced the tartness and sought the best way to put it to use. Since I already made several varieties of liqueurs, or infusions (a mix of vodka, fruit and sugar) using fruit from my backyard, I tried out the wild plum. Out of all the varieties, the wild plum has been the crowd favorite. I think it’s because the tartness creates a flavor more complex than sweetness alone. 

Prunus americana is typically not sold in nurseries here. Perhaps it was in the past. They may have been plucked from forests where the trees had spread or distributed by wildlife. I suspect my Moraga tree was planted by a previous homeowner because it fit a little too neatly into the flower bed. 

Maria Finn, a Sausalito-based writer and chef who’s writing a book about cooking with wild foods, which will include wild plums, first discovered the tree 13 years ago, when she arrived in the Bay Area. She was hiking in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area and discovered a forest of the trees, laden with fruit. She was intrigued. 

Wild plums ready for pressing. Credit: Gaby Raymond

“They looked like cherries and smelled like plums,” she said. She then did what a forager is never supposed to do without first doing her research: she popped one in her mouth. (Foragers should also never pick fruit from private property.)

“Often they’ll be different colors: yellow and white and dark red ones,” Finn said, though the flavor tends to be tart no matter what the color. Finn has experimented with all of them.

Gaby Raymond, who lives in North Berkeley, didn’t have to hike — or even walk — very far to discover her wild plum. A Prunus americana was in her backyard when she and her family moved into their house in 2012. The tree is about 30 feet tall. 

“It’s prolific,” she said of the tree, which drops the equivalent of two five-gallon buckets of plums per year. Like me, she couldn’t let the fruit go to waste.

“I’ve made lots of plum jam — my husband loves it — but he doesn’t eat it in five-gallon quantities,” she quipped.

Prunus americana in bloom. Credit: Andrew Ciscel

After getting a fruit press to make apple cider in 2018, Raymond used the wild plum to make a sorbet with the help of an ice-cream maker. She gives away containers of the recipe to friends every year.

Another tree that produces small “cherry plums” is Prunus cerasifera, a purple-leafed plant that is neither wild or native, but nursery stock that the City of Berkeley has planted in various locations over the years. The trees were chosen for their aesthetics: It has purple leaves and produces light pink flowers. They’re all over town.

“They are very pretty and especially beautiful in the springtime. The petals fall like snowflakes. When a street has a lot of plums on it, it’s lovely,” Gallagher said. “A lot of people like the purple leaves because they’re different.” 

The variety has made for a good street tree because of its upright structure and compact size (they max out at 40 feet) that allows it to be planted in the small space between the sidewalk and the curb. 

Such trees, however, are non-fruit-bearing ornamentals, but every once in a while will be pollinated by another nearby tree and create what Gallaghter called “a breakthrough” that produces fruit.

 “For the most part, people in the city don’t want fruit-producing trees in the public right-of-way,” Gallagher said. 

One benefit of eating the fruit from non-native trees is that it reduces the likelihood of the seeds being spread by birds and mammals into wild places where they don’t belong, edging out native species. 

Sadly, I no longer have a wild plum in my backyard. But now that I know other enthusiasts, I know where to find them. Eating fruit I can pick myself is no longer some California fantasy, but a reality.

Coming up on Tuesday: Two ideas on what to make with the East Bay’s bounty of wild plums.

Joanne Furio moved to Berkeley because it has sidewalks. She specializes in design in all its incarnations, innovation and the arts.