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Every Plum Imaginable

A three-year odyssey through the orchards of California turns up a spectrum of extraordinary fruit

June 19, 2002|DAVID KARP | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The Santa Rosa plums on the tree near my window have started to ripen, filling my room with their fruity bouquet. The crimson-purple Santa Rosa is a plum with more personality than many of us are used to these days, tart near the skin and pit with sweet flesh and intense, almost overpowering, perfume.

Not so long ago, it was the dominant plum in California. But marketing demands--the need for durable fruit with a long shelf life--have done to the plum very much what those same demands have done to the tomatoes most people buy and complain so bitterly about. But, as with the tomato, the situation is far from grim, thanks to the willingness of many bold producers to swim against the tide.

In fact, as I've traveled across the state during the last three summers, I've found astounding diversity and, often, extraordinary quality--plums new and old, big and small, green, black, purple, red and yellow, tough and tender, wretched and exquisite--enough to overwhelm any palate accustomed to the characterless impostors in the grocery bin.

For now, farmers markets and fruit stands are the places to look for the best plums, although even chain stores will carry a fine Santa Rosa when the season is in full swing.

The plum season starts with a whisper in late May, with a few weeks of so-so early varieties. The prime varieties start ripening now and will be coming to market every week through September. This year's harvest looks to be a good one in California, which produces 95% of the nation's fresh plum crop.

There are three main kinds of plums grown in the United States: American, European and Asian. For centuries, California Indians harvested wild plums, but these are small and very tart. Spanish missionaries and American settlers brought European types, such as small, sweet greengages, tart culinary plums like damsons, and prunes, which are plums that can be dried whole without fermenting. Today, however, more than 96% of the plums grown for fresh market in California are Asian types, which are relatively large, attractive and productive.

Luther Burbank, the celebrated plant breeder based in Santa Rosa, was the father of California's Asian plum industry. Between 1885 and his death in 1926, Burbank imported dozens of plum trees from Japan, crossed them with other species, including some native to America, and introduced more than 100 new varieties. Most fell into oblivion, but about half a dozen, including the Santa Rosa, Satsuma, Kelsey and Elephant Heart, are still grown today.

Burbank's greatest creation, the Santa Rosa, has fallen out of favor with farmers because they can no longer make money on it. The Santa Rosa's share of the plum harvest has dropped from 35% in 1961 to just 4% today. The Santa Rosa is smaller than modern varieties (though it was considered a big plum when it was introduced in 1906), so it costs more to harvest, and chain store buyers prefer larger fruit.

In the last three decades, growers have dramatically increased production of large, firm, black plums such as Friar and Blackamber, which look ripe even when they're not, don't show bruises and withstand rough handling and prolonged storage. Many are exported to Taiwan and Hong Kong, and they hold up well during the long journey by boat. As for flavor, there often isn't any.

I observed the Blackamber's durability at Hosaka Farms in Reedley, the center of the plum industry, which is 20 miles southeast of Fresno. The workers started picking at dawn, while it was still cool, singing softly to themselves and cracking jokes as they moved the ladders around the orchard to strip the trees. They filled canvas bags strapped to their chests, then opened a flap at the bottom to dump the plums into huge plastic bins. When I sampled a few fruits, even the darkest and ripest was bland, termed "neutral" in the trade.

Such mild flavor can be a commercial advantage, said David Ramming, a fruit breeder with the U.S. Department of Agriculture who introduced the Blackamber and several other leading plum varieties. "When a fruit has special aromas, not everybody likes them," he said at his office. "If the flavor is really strong, it can limit the market."

The black skin and firm, amber flesh of many modern varieties derive from Prunus simonii, an Asian plum species that also, unfortunately, has mediocre flavor. Even so, Blackamber and Friar would taste good, Ramming maintained, if farmers picked them ripe. But most chain stores demand plums hard as rocks for a long shelf life.

Ramming himself enjoys highly flavored plums and is working to preserve the Santa Rosa flavor in commercially viable varieties. It's no cinch.

"As soon as we make them larger and firmer, we lose that distinctive flavor," he said. "You really have to work to get all the desirable characteristics together."

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