This year may be a record for plum growers, but it will be one with an asterisk. The projected harvest of almost 500 million pounds will be the largest for which there are written records. In the early '90s, though, when there was a gap in the record keeping, there was a harvest that might have been as much as 560 million pounds.
But records mean nothing to anyone but bookkeepers. The only thing you need to know is that there will be lots of plums this year--more than 10% more than last year--and that prices will be low.
The big news in the plum world this season is the continued growth of the Fortune variety, a great big red-skinned, yellow-fleshed fruit that has tripled in volume in the last four years.
"It comes at the same time as the Friar, which is a black-skinned plum," says Gary Van Sickle of the California Tree Fruit Agreement. "There is a desire among retail to have different colors of plums on display at the same time, and Fortune complements the Friar nicely."
The Friar is the big daddy of the plum deal--by far the largest single variety harvested in California--and when it wants a complement, it gets one. The Fortune was the second-most planted tree last year.
This is unusual in the plum world, which is notable for its varietal stability. New plums are rare because they are so hard to breed. Plum trees require cross-pollination, and not just any old variety will do. Certain varieties will cross only with certain other varieties.
The reward for this pickiness is that the top varieties last for decades, unlike peach and nectarine varieties. In fact, the Santa Rosa, still one of the top five plums, was developed by the famed horticulturist Luther Burbank (1849-1926).
Though plums are more durable than peaches and nectarines, and better able to handle chilling at refrigerator temperatures, it is best to treat them the same as their stone fruit cousins. That means ripening them by wrapping them in a brown paper bag and leaving them at room temperature. Once they begin to soften, they can be refrigerated without going mealy.