What is a beach plum? How sweet fruit became a Jersey Shore tradition

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Every May, visitors to the Jersey Shore (and points north and south) can spot delicate blooms on hardy bush-like trees that thrive amid sand dunes and grasses that help protect the erosion beaches.

After the white petals fall, edible berries the size of blueberries and cherries emerge and sprout throughout the summer, as sunbathers and sun worshipers flock to the same silky sands of these Jersey beaches.

Growing wild for centuries along beaches from New England to Virginia, this small, native stone fruit is classified as a plum and — unsurprisingly — named the “beach” plum.

In late August and September, these purple pieces, tart with varying degrees of sweetness, are ripe for consumption or processing into what has become a growing list of popular products and uses ranging from jelly and traditional preserves to wine, ice cream, syrup, vinaigrette. , shrub for drinks and even distilled liquors.

Today there are more and sweeter varieties, thanks to plant research and development by the Agricultural Extension Service at Rutgers University in South Jersey.

And in recent years, more and more farms are growing beach plums in orchards around Cape May County.

No. 1 in the production of beach plums

“Cape May County is the beach plum capital of the world,” said Alma George, who co-owns Jalma Farms with her husband John in the Ocean View section of Dennis Township in Cape May County.

This plum is so prevalent in the county, from Higbee Beach in Lower Township near Cape May City north to Ocean City, that in 2010 county commissioners declared it an official fruit of the county.

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With over 2,000 orchards and more growing wild on its 130 acres, Jalma is the largest beach plum farm in the state.

The Georges use an old family recipe to make a reduced-sugar beach plum jam, which contains more plum pulp than jelly. After processing and shaking the jam at Rutgers Food Innovation Center for Small Business in Bridgeton, they sell the jars at stores and farmers’ markets up and down the coast and in their own store at Stainton’s Gallery of Shop, 810 Asbury Ave. in Ocean City.

“We have a regular variety and a hot variety,” said Alma, whose property has been farmland since 1680, nearly 350 years ago.

Jalma also offers another unusual variety of jam made from sour chokeberry, or chokeberry, which is also found by the sea.

Very environmentalist, the Georges also provide young beach plum trees for beach planting projects along the Jersey shoreline, as does beach plum farmer Curtis Corson, who is also mayor of Upper Township.

Matthew Stiles, another farmer who owns and operates a pick-your-own operation at the Cape May courthouse from May through October, has beach plums from late August through September.

“I eat the sweeter ones – called Rutgers BP1 – straight from the orchard,” he said.

“I think I’ll try thinning the branches this year to see if I can grow the fruit to the size of a regular plum.”

Giving the beach plum her due

Beach Plum Farm in West Cape May has become one of the region’s most popular destinations, with its farm-fresh gourmet market, luxury cottage rentals and private event spaces. Although the farm does not grow beach plums, the name of the fruit speaks to its lasting influence in the region.

Further north in Ocean County, an annual Beach Plum Festival will be held from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sept. 11 at Island Beach State Park in Berkeley Township, adjacent to Seaside Park. The state park waives its regular admission fees for vehicles on the day of the festival, but the festival group asks for a donation to enter.

Visitors ashore can try everything from homemade beach plum jelly to ice cream, but bring a bucket for picking.

Organized by the Friends of Island Beach State Park, all volunteers, the festival jelly is the house recipe of its late founder Ferdinand Kleebold. Its volunteers make the jam.

“We will have a jelly-making demonstration and have jars for sale. There are trees growing wild that can be picked for plums, and we will also have trees for sale,” the vice said. -President of Friends, Bill Gwyer, adding that his mother made jelly when he was little.

More than 100 craft vendors are expected as well as food trucks.

Is that a beach plum in your glass?

Many summer memories involve a glass of wine or a special cocktail.

If it’s wine you’re craving, Natali Vineyards in the Middle Township makes beach plum wine from berries it grows in its vineyards.

General manager Dave Urquhart said the wine will be bottled in May from plums harvested in the fall of 2021 and will be available for sale immediately after.

“It’s a limited wine that we usually have until the fall or winter. We may be the only winery in the world to make it, and we use beach plums that we grow in our own vineyard. “, he explained.

The wine is fortified with added alcohol and is also made with sugar. “It’s a dark red purple color, sweet but tart on the finish,” Urquhart said.

Winery customers can also buy Jalma Farms beach plum jams here.

For a plum cocktail on the beach this summer, try the Washington Inn in Cape May or the Lucky Bones Bar and Grille in Lower Township.

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Farmers Corson and Mike Craig, who also own the inn, provide the fruit for the inn’s beach plum vodka martini, which is typically served during the summer.

Lucky Bones also serves a beach plum mojito when in season, as does Rusty Nail, across from the beach in downtown Cape May.

Want to sip rum with beach plums? Board the Cape May-Lewes ferry and head to Beach Time Distilling in Lewes, Delaware, where popular fruits sweeten any happy hour. The distillery also sells its libations online.

So where does the beach plum come from?

The beach plum dates back to early North American history.

The first record of the fruit dates back to 1524 by Italian Giovanni da Verrazano in upstate New York. He called them “damson” plums.

In the early 1600s, Henry Hudson reported seeing an abundance of these “blue plums” on the banks of the river that now bears his name in New York.

If that’s history you’re interested in, South Jersey resident John Howard-Fusco is the author of “A Culinary History of Cape May:” Salt Oysters, Beach Plums and Cabernet Franc. “The book is available from Arcadia Publishing and you can read it to learn a whole lot more about these enduring fruits that have left such an impression on our coastline.

For more information on Island Beach State Park’s Beach Plum Festival, visit friendsofislandbeach.org

Carol Comegno loves telling stories about South Jersey life, history and veterans for the Courier Post, Burlington County Times and Daily Journal. If you have a story to share, call her at 856-486-2473 or email [email protected]

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