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A Comprehensive Guide to American Plum (Prunus americana)

American Plum (Prunus americana) is a shrub to small tree that is native to most of the United States and mid-west to eastern Canada. This plant is a host to four butterflies and many moths, including the Luna Moth and is an important nectar source for other insects. Growing from 5 to 25 feet tall, this species grows in open areas such wood edges, roadsides, and thickets. The white flowers age to pink and bloom from April to June and the plant is hardy in zones 3-9.

Taxonomy and Naming of American Plum (Prunus americana)

Herbarium specimen of american plum (Prunus americana).
Herbarium Specimen — Prunus americana Marshall collected in United States of America by The New York Botanical Garden (licensed under CC BY 4.0)

Taxonomy

American Plum (Prunus americana) was named and described by Humphrey Marshall, an American botanist, in 1785. It still has the same name and is a member of the Rose Family (Rosaceae).

Meaning of the Scientific and Common Names

Scientific Name

The genus name, Prunus, is Latin for “plum tree.” The species name, americana, is a Latinized version of America, where the species is native.

Common Name and Alternative Names

The common name comes from the native location of the species. Some other common names include indian plum (Murrill 1920), hog plum (Bergen 1893), wild yellow and red plum (Rothrock 1894), and wild plum (Wikipedia).

Physical Description

White flowers of american plum (Prunus americana).
Flowers of American Plum — Prunus americana Marshall observed in United States of America by Craig Martin (licensed under CC0 1.0).
  • Plant Type: This plant is a shrub to small tree.
  • Height: 5 to 25 (35) feet tall
  • Stem: The branches are thorny.
  • Leaves: The leaves are alternate, petiolate, oval in shape, have serrate margins, and are 2 to 4 inches in length and 1 to 2 inches in width.
  • Flower color: white
  • Blooming period: This plant blooms from April to June.
  • Fruiting type and period: This plant has bright red drupes that mature from August to September.

Range of American Plum in the United States and Canada

Range map of american plum (Prunus americana) in the United States and Canada.
Range Map Credit: Kartesz, J.T., The Biota of North America Program (BONAP). 2023.(website https://bonap.org/). Chapel Hill, N.C. [maps generated from Kartesz, J.T. 2023. Floristic Synthesis of North America, Version 1.0. Biota of North America Program (BONAP). (in press)]

This species is native to most of North America except for the states of Alaska, California, Louisiana, and Nevada in the United States and the far west and east of Canada. It considered to be rare in the states of Arkansas and Vermont, and the province of Saskatchewan.

Habitat

Open riverine floodplain.
Open Riverine Floodplain — Leonhard Lenz, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

This species grows in open areas such as roadsides, wood edges, woodlands, and thickets.

Hosted Insects

Pale swallowtail (Papilio eurymedon) on a red flower.
Pale Swallowtail (Papilio eurymedon) — ALAN SCHMIERER, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

The Prunus genus is general is a host to four butterflies including the henry’s elfin (Callophrys henrici), Coral hairstreak (Satyrium titus), the Eastern Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio glaucus), and the Pale Swallowtail (Papilio eurymedon) (Gaden, et al 2023). This genus also hosts many moths and one of the notable ones is the Luna Moth (Actias luna).

Other Supported Wildlife

Metallic bee on white flower.
Flower with Metallic Bee — David Whelan, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

This species is an important nectar source to other butterflies such as the eastern pine elfin (Callophrys niphon) and the thicket hairstreak (C. spinetorum) (Sheilds 1972), skippers, bees, and wasps. Birds and small mammals enjoy the fruits in the summer.

Frequently Asked Questions

Does this plant have any ethnobotanical uses?

The Native American Ethobotanical Database shows as the name would imply is a popular fruit and food. It has also been used for numerous pharmaceutical uses and for dyes and fibers. This species has been as being used by the Navajo for a dye (Hart and Cox 2000).

How is this plant distinguished from other Cherries (Prunus spp.)?

This species is similar to the Mexican Plum (Prunus mexicana), but the Mexican Plum has does not produce root suckers like the American Plum (Flora of North America). The Mexican Plum also has a rounded leaf base versus the cuneate leaf base of the American Plum (Weakley, et al 2022) and the fruit of the Mexican Plum is bluish to purple-red (Robinson 1974) as compared to the brighter red of this species. This species is sometimes compared to the Canadian Plum (Prunus nigra), but the Canadian Plum has incurved teeth versus the straight teeth of this species (Arnold Arboretum 1923).

Is this plant invasive?

This plant has not been noted as being invasive in the literature.

Gardening with American Plum

References

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Robert Coxe

Robert Coxe

Robert Coxe is a professional ecologist and botanist who has worked as the State Ecologist of Delaware and as an ecologist for the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy. He is also a former Past-President of the Pennsylvania Academy of Science. He currently is an innkeeper at McMullen House Bed & Breakfast LLC and a web designer and owner for Silphium Design LLC.

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