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A Comprehensive Guide to Canadian Plum (Prunus nigra)

Canadian Plum (Prunus nigra) is a large shrub to small tree that is native to the northern mid-west, New York, and New England in the United States and Canada from Manitoba and east. This plant is a host to the striped hairstreak and several moths. Growing from 10 to 35 feet tall, this tree has white to pink flowers that bloom in May. It is hardy in zones 2-9.

Taxonomy and Naming of Canadian Plum (Prunus nigra)

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

Taxonomy

Canadian Plum (Prunus nigra) was named and described by William Aiton, a Scottish botanist, in 1789. The description was based on a plant in cultivation at the time, but was known from Canada (Wight 1915). The species has kept this name since 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 drupe, referring to the fruit type of the genus (Missouri Botanical Garden). The species name, nigra, derives from the Latin word for black, referring the black drupes of the plant.

Common Name and Alternative Names

The common name comes from the native location of this species. Other common names include wild plum, red plum, and horse plum (Dame and Brooks 1901). The French name is “Prunier canadien.” (Morton 1921).

Physical Description

White flowers of Canadian plum (Prunus nigra).
Flowers of Canadian Plum — Prunus nigra Aiton observed in Canada by Ian Whyte (licensed under CC0 1.0)
  • Plant Type: This plant is a shrub to small tree.
  • Height: up to 35 feet tall
  • Stem: The trunk grows up to 12 inches in diameter and has gray-brown bark. The stem generally divides four to five feet from the ground (Sargent 1892).
  • Leaves: The leaves are alternate, petiolate, simple, serrate, and oval to oblong-ovate in shape. The leaves are 2 to 5 inches long and 1 to 3 inches wide. The leaves can be coriaceous when mature (Sargent 1892).
  • Flower color: white, but become more pinkish with age (Wight 1915)
  • Blooming period: This plant blooms in May.
  • Fruiting type and period: The orange-red or yellowish fruit matures in the summer to fall.

Range of Canadian Plum (Prunus nigra) in the United States and Canada

Range map of canadian plum (Prunus nigra) 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 cherry is native to the northern tier and northeastern United States and central and eastern Canada.

Habitat

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

This species grows in open woods, edges, and clearings that located in alluvial valleys or on limestone hills (Wight 1915). This species may form thickets where it grows (Van Dersal, et al 1939).

Hosted Insects

Striped hairstreak butterfly (Satyrium liparops) on vegetation.
Striped Hairstreak (Satyrium liparops) — Jacy Lucier, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

This species is a host to the striped hairstreak (Satyrium liparops) and several species of moths. Some of these moths include the Yellow-spotted tussock moth (Lophocampa maculata), splendid dagger moth (Acronita superans) (McCabe 1991), and the great ash sphinx (Sphinx cherisis). It is also a host of the green peach aphid (Myzus persicae) (USDA 1953).

Other Supported Wildlife

Bumblebee on pink flower.
Bumblebee on Flower — Weerlicht, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

This species is a nectar source to other butterflies, skippers, bees, and wasps during the growing season.

Frequently Asked Questions

Does this plant have any ethnobotanical uses?

The Native American Ethobotanical Database shows that this plant is has a lot of uses as a food and cough medicine. This plant has been used as a laxative and the bark has been used in tonics (Hough and Hough 1888).

How is this plant distinguished from other cherries or plums?

Canadian plum is similar to the American plum (Prunus americana), but Canadian plum has broader leaves overall and gland-tipped teeth that are rounded. The flowers are also larger than the American plum. When not in flower, this plant looks similar to the European buckthorn (Rhamnus cathartica) and has been confused for it (Shaw 1978).

Is this plant invasive?

This plant has not been shown to be invasive in the literature.

Gardening with Canadian Plum (Prunus nigra)

Fruits of Canadian plum (Prunus nigra).
Canadian Plum (Prunus nigra) Fruit — Laval University, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Hardiness

This species is hardy in zones 2-9. If your garden is within these zones and you have the right growing conditions (soil, moisture and exposure), you may well be able to grow this plant. However, if planted outside of its range, the hosted species may not recognize the plant or be harmed by ingesting a different species with an unfamiliar chemical composition.

Optimal Conditions

This species grows best in places with full sun, but can handle part-shade. It likes well-drained soils that are either dry or moist. There are a number of cultivars in the horticultural trade (Damery 2018).

Additional Notes about Canadian Plum

This plant has been noted as one of the first plums to bloom in the Arnold Arboretum, blooming before the American plum (Arnold Arboretum 1924).

References

  • Arnold Arboretum. 1924. Plum-trees. Arnold Arboretum Bulletin of Popular Information. 10: 12.
  • Dame, Lorin Low and Henry Brooks. 1901. Handbook of the trees of New England, with ranges throughout the United States and Canada. (Boston: Ginn).
  • Damery, Jonathan. 2018. Recalling Plums from the Wild. Arnoldia 75 (3): 24-34.
  • Hough, Romeyn Beck and Marjorie G. Hough. 1888. The American woods: exhibited by actual specimens and with copious explanatory text. (Lowville, NY: self-published).
  • McCabe, Timothy Lee. 1991. Atlas of Adirondack caterpillars; with a host list, rearing notes, and selected bibliography of works depicting caterpillars. (Albany, NY: NY State Museum). Bull. 470.
  • Morton, B.R. 1921. Native Trees of Canada. (Ottawa, ON: Department of the Interior).
  • Sargent, Charles Sprague. 1892. The Silva of North America: a description of the trees which grow naturally in North America exclusive of Mexico. (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, and Company).
  • Shaw, Keith. 1978. Correction: Rhamnus cathartica L. is not Prunus nigra Ait. Blue Jay 36 (1): 14.
  • USDA. 1953. Cooperative Economic Insect Report. (Washington, DC: US Department of Agriculture).
  • Van Dersal, William Richard, Furman Lloyd Mulford, and Thornthwaite, C.W. 1939. Native woody plants of the United States: their erosion-control and wildlife values. (Washington, DC: US Department of Agriculture), No. 303.
  • Wight, W.F. 1915. Native American species of Prunus. (Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Agriculture) no. 179.
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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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