You’re probably familiar with the story of apples. You may know that Johnny Appleseed passed through western New York on his way to Ohio. You may even be aware that popular varieties of apples, from Cortland to Jonagold and Empire, were developed at Cornell University’s New York State Agricultural Experiment Station in Geneva. Thanks to the station’s pomologists, scientists dedicated to fruit culture, New York is second only to Washington State in apple production. In fact, the word “pomology” is derived from pomme, the French word for apple.
In our opinion, the plum is an even more noble fruit, and its local story has yet to be told. For more than a century, Geneva has been home to pomologists devoted to improving and propagating knowledge of new varieties of this diverse, elegant and flavorful tree fruit. Your familiarity with plums may be limited to those offered at the local supermarket. These are Asian varieties, such as Santa Rosa from California, or prunes, the dried variety of European plum also grown and processed in California. Imagine now fresh fruit with European ancestry and varietal names reflecting their country of origin, such as Reine Claude from France, Gras Ameliorat with roots in Romania, and Cacak’s Best developed in the former Yugoslavia.
What’s so great about plums?
Plums are more varied than other stone fruits. As pointed out in Ulysses P. Hedrick’s landmark publication, Plums of New York (1911), they “give a greater range of flavor, aroma, texture, color, form and size, the qualities which gratify the senses and make fruits desirable, than any other of our orchard fruits.” In the English language the word “plum” is synonymous with something excellent or desirable. We hear of visions of sugar plums, plum jobs, political plums, and plum pudding dating back to Tudor times and made popular as a Christmas treat by Prince Albert in the 19th Century. We believe that these uses of the word “plum” relate back to the high quality of many European plums used both for eating fresh and for cooking.
Recent research at the Experiment Station has demonstrated the health benefits of plums. They are an excellent source of antioxidants, mainly phenolics, which are especially useful in natural body defenses against cancer. The levels of these antioxidants are higher than in an apple, banana, orange and tomato. Phenolics also influence the color, flavor and taste of fresh fruit, which may explain the special pleasure in eating European plums. Flavor is intense, and different varieties have distinct tastes, more pronounced than in the more familiar varieties of apples.
Beyond the health benefits, there is what pomologists at the Experiment Station refer to as the brix value, or the level of sugar, which can approach 20 percent. For this reason, European plums are now officially designated as “sugar plums” in the California Tree Fruit Agreement. You may soon see plums from California marketed under this name here in New York state. However, we suggest that you begin looking for European plums developed and grown right here in our own region.
The plum experts
Let’s step backward in time to the early 20th century. Richard Wellington, who joined the faculty of the Experiment Station in 1906, assisted Ulysses P. Hedrick in preparing Plums of New York. Collectors prize this volume for its color prints. It is also a generative work in the history of pomology. When the idea for the volume was first conceived (around 1900) there were 1 million plum trees in production in New York state.
Wellington was hired at a time when the Experiment Station was riding the crest of a wave of forward-thinking research and development, especially in pomology. Wellington has been recognized with many awards, but none more significant than the Marshall P. Wilder Medal of the American Pomological Society for outstanding achievement in fruit breeding.
During his tenure at the Station, Wellington developed Stanley, the European plum introduced in 1926. Stanley has been described by pomologist Roger Way as “the most widely grown plum cultivar in the world.”
When John Watson joined the Experiment Station in 1950, his assignment was to hybridize plums for processing in order to improve on Stanley. John Watson had a special knack, or second sense, for selecting parents with potential for the future. Ken Livermore, a close friend and coworker of Watson’s, says, “John had foresight and could see characters that many would miss.”
Before his retirement in 1987, he named four European plum cultivars. They were Iroquois, Mohawk, Oneida and Seneca. The latter was among the New York Plum Picks for 2006 and was featured in the New York Fruit Quarterly Spring 2006 issue, where its eating quality was described as “unsurpassed.”
From John Watson’s collection of elite plums, pomologist Robert (Bob) Andersen was instrumental in bringing several others to release, including Castleton, Polly and Longjohn in 1993. The latter, a large, oblong, blue fruit, was named in honor of John Watson. Andersen, who recently retired from the Station, devoted a major portion of his career in bringing these plums along to release. Bob would be the first to point out, however, that he has been carrying to completion the work of his predecessor John P. Watson, whom he refers to as “the foremost plum breeder at the Station.”
Andersen began his life in pomology at the Michigan State University Experiment Station in South Haven and ended his career at the Experiment Station in Geneva. In a recent conversation Bob pointed out: “I am proud of a career in fruit breeding that has led to the release of many varieties although none were hybrids that I initiated.”
Of the three phases involved in the development of new fruit cultivars, Bob Andersen was instrumental in the final two. The first phase involves choosing the parents. Then there follows a long process, season after season, of culling and rejecting, sometimes thousands of progeny, in order to preserve the most promising. Finally, as Bob Andersen points out, “there is a yes-or-no decision to release on the basis of traits of value to fruit growers and with future market potential.”
The dedication and careful work of Richard Wellington, John Watson and Robert Andersen have produced more releases of European plums from the Experiment Station in Geneva than from any other in North America.
The future of plums
Now that Bob Andersen has retired, plum research will be carried on under the direction of Courtney Weber. He will continue to manage the current elite selections in order to identify and release further useful cultivars. His hope for the future, resources permitting, is to set out in a new direction. By crossbreeding Japanese plums with indigenous American varieties, a largely untapped genetic resource, he may be able to improve cold hardiness and disease resistance. (It was American plums such as these that were growing in the orchards surrounding the Seneca Indian community of Canadasaga, the site on which the Experiment Station now stands. These orchards and villages, however, were destroyed during the 1779 Sullivan Campaign of the American Revolutionary War, when the Continental Army attempted to harm the British by attacking their Native American allies.)
The color, texture and taste of fresh plums and the color and taste of processed fruit, as well as disease resistance, have all been enhanced by research at the Experiment Station. When new cultivars are released, fruit processors and fruit growers may adopt them. In the Finger Lakes a successful grower with a passion for expanding consumer knowledge of European plums is Joe Nicholson and family. Joe says, “I enjoy the challenge of bringing tree-ripened fruit with historical roots as deep as Ancient Rome to recognition among consumers in the East.” He and his two sons and daughter own and operate Red Jacket Orchards in Geneva.
Ken Livermore is spending his retirement busily planting his “orchard of dreams” on Preemption Road, three miles south of Geneva. Ken says, “I really enjoy the evaluation and decision making involved in discovering exciting new varieties of plum.” At the same time he will be selling fruit from the more than 100 trees he has already planted.
Remember that any fruit purchased locally will be superior in flavor, aroma and nutrition because it is picked at a peak of ripeness. Those “sugar plums” from California mentioned earlier, may spend as many as eight days in transit. Discover, perhaps for the first time, the joys of the noble European plum grown right here in the Finger Lakes!
by Paul Grebinger and Jay Freer
Jay Freer is with the New York State Agricultural Experiment Station, where he began working on stone fruits with Bob Anderson in 1996. Currently Jay is working with plum root stock orchards. Paul Grebinger is an instructor of anthropology at Rochester Institute of Technology. He lives in Geneva and is interested in the history of the nursery industry.