Foraging in Minnesota: Wild Plums

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When it comes to foraging, nothing says “end of summer” like wild plums. During that late August/early September time with cool mornings and moderately warm afternoons, I know without looking that American and Canada plums are ripe. 

Prunus, spp.

Most people don’t know it, but Minnesota is home to two species of wild plums. 

American plum (Prunus americana) is by far more common. It prefers upland locations and spreads vegetatively, forming dense thickets. According to reputable sources, it can be found all over the state, but is definitely more common around farmland and hardwood forest openings. 

The other of our plums is Canada plum (Prunus nigra). It is less common, and more fond of shaded surroundings and higher soil moisture. It is more likely to be encountered the farther north you go (you know, toward Canada). 

Telling the two apart is not always easy; it can be more art than science. Still, putting together enough clues should help one make a confident diagnosis. 

First, consider the leaf shape. P. nigra (generally) have rounder leaves, while P. americana’s are more ovate, sometimes decidedly elongated/pointed. Also, americana leaves have a more prominent sawtooth margin. 

Second, consider the location and each specie’s general preferences. Canada=shadier, wetter, northern. American=sunny, drier, southern and western. 

Last, the Minnesota Wildflowers website points out that Canada plum has tiny glands on the leaf stalk, whereas American plum may have glands on the leaf blade near the stalk. Believe me, it can be a struggle to find enough leaves or stems with glands to be certain of their location. However, sometimes it’s a slam dunk. 

Wild plum foraging/harvesting

The Harvest

The window for a plum harvest can vary from year to year, like many other fruits. This year was a tough one, and I believe that was mainly because of the drought. Plums were generally hard to come by. They were often on the small end, and they ripened a bit early, too. The plums that were most ripe on August 19th, for instance, were small and on bushes with yellow leaves (top photo). 

In general, I expect American plums to be ripe around the Twin Cities area to be in their prime in the last week of August through the first week of September. That’s also true for Canada plums I’ve picked in the north central part of the state. But as I said, this year was early. If you don’t want to risk missing out, I’d recommend keeping tabs on your best plum thickets from mid-August onward. 

Wild plums can be tricky to time just right. Picked a little early, they’ll be mealy and less sweet. Picked too late, they’ll definitely seem overripe. When they’re just right, there’s nothing better. Problem is, it sometimes all plays out in a few days. 

In the last couple years I’ve experimented with picking them on the early side and letting them ripen on the counter at home. It works very well if you keep daily tabs on their progress. The trick is to pick them as they get close to their final, purplish stage. Yellow is way too early. Timed right, ripening takes only a couple days. When they feel nice and soft, they’re probably there; it wouldn’t hurt to taste one or two. They should be juicy and sweet. I recommend keeping them in a closed plastic container to keep the fruit flies away. 

Tasty, tasty plums

Plum jam is a great way to use them if you don’t eat them all fresh. A couple years ago we made a batch of jam for the first time. It was….okay. This year we tried using plum pulp with pin cherry juice, and the result was better. The ratio was about 3 parts plum to 1 part cherry juice. The plum texture was present, but cherry flavor came through nicely. 

I’ll continue experimenting similarly in the future, because I believe that like juneberries, plums make a good main ingredient for mixed fruit jam. I suspect it could be a good use for leftover amounts of chokecherry juice, for instance. Maybe I’ll incorporate some apple from our tree somehow. 

What is your experience making plum jam? Any suggestions or crazy ideas you’d like to share? Leave a comment below!

~

If you’re interested in learning about more foraged foods, please visit the What to Forage page.

Tullibees and Happy Kids on Mille Lacs

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Nobody smiles at 4:40 am. Nobody at my house, anyway. But Friday morning, I woke my kids up that early, knowing they would be smiling a lot that day- eventually. They had the day off from school, and we had a big day planned at Mille Lacs Lake. 

Our little Ford Escape slinked down the resort ramp between rumbling trucks and wheelhouses, onto the white expanse. It was a few minutes before sunrise, though we wouldn’t see the sun that day due to thick cloud cover. Winds were moderate and temperatures were expected to rise about ten degrees to near 30 by day’s end. It wasn’t a picture-perfect day, but it could have been worse.  Continue reading “Tullibees and Happy Kids on Mille Lacs”

Do Something New: Harvest Your Own Christmas Tree

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Normally I wouldn’t be thinking about our Christmas tree in October. In fact, we’ve had a hand-me-down artificial tree for about the last 15 years, so it wouldn’t occur to me at all. But some relatives were telling us they’d be at the cabin this year for Christmas, and I suggested they get a permit to take their tree from the woods for the occasion. So in the interest of encouraging others into the outdoors, I snooped around for information from Minnesota DNR and the Forest Service, and emailed them some web links. 

What I found actually surprised me. As far as I could tell, the permit for harvesting a tree from Minnesota’s state forest lands would cost $25. That was a higher price than I expected. However, the permit for a tree from Chippewa National Forest costs only $5. 

Yes, FIVE DOLLARS.  Continue reading “Do Something New: Harvest Your Own Christmas Tree”

Do Something New: Smelt Netting

When I was growing up in the ’80s, the smelt boom on Lake Superior was already over and fading into collective memory, becoming legend. “Smelting” in its heyday was something everybody knew about and a great many rushed to the rivers to partake in. Nowadays, it’s almost exclusively a “used to” activity; you might have heard it too: “we used to go up there and fill up a barrel with smelt in half an hour.” In recent years, however, I’ve learned that the smelt still run and a select few still pursue them. 

Last Wednesday, I bought a smelting net from a guy on Craig’s List for 10 bucks. The next day I headed for Lake Superior with that net, hip waders, a 5 gallon bucket, what little information could be gleaned from the internet regarding current conditions, and a whole lot of hope. The plan was to start up the shore after sunset, and work my way down if I found nothing. The first stop was the booming metropolis of Knife River.  Continue reading “Do Something New: Smelt Netting”

Do Something New: Tapping Maple Trees and Making Syrup

Read More Minnesota maple basswood forest

When you try something new, sometimes it doesn’t go so well. A week ago, it was looking like I wouldn’t see so much as a drop of maple sap coming out of my taps. There was more than a foot of snow on the ground, and although the temperatures seemed perfect, nothing was happening.  Continue reading “Do Something New: Tapping Maple Trees and Making Syrup”

My Public Lands: 2018

After the Public Lands Day rally at the state capitol rotunda last year, it seemed like a good idea to keep track of my public land usage until the next rally rolled around. I normally visit a lot of state and federal public lands throughout the year, but never kept a record, and so never really knew the extent of my own personal use. My mission to document my outings proved not only enlightening, but also spurred me on to go new places and try new things. 

The following is a visual representation of my visits- as well as my varied activities- on Minnesota’s public lands since last April. You may notice that not every single day or visit is represented by a photograph. For instance, some photographs represent an activity carried out on several different parcels, at noted. Likewise, some outings occurred on many different days, such as foraging in Chippewa National Forest and George Washington State Forest throughout the summer and fall. I only wish I had remembered to bring my rally sign with me every time; regrettably, there are some gaps in coverage. 

Our public lands, as you can see, are important to me throughout the year for camping, fishing, hunting, foraging, educating my children, and much more. If you are so inclined, please consider joining the Public Lands Day rally at the Minnesota state capitol February 7th, at 3:00. Thanks, and get outside. 

C.C. Andrews State Forest, Kettle River

Sucker fishing and camping, Cloquet Valley S.F. and CC Andrews S.F., April 2018 Continue reading “My Public Lands: 2018”

Foraging in Minnesota: Cranberries

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The fourth Thursday of November is still more than a month away, but now is the right time to go out and find that Thanksgiving staple: the cranberry. Didn’t know cranberries are growing wild in Minnesota? You’re definitely not alone. Yes, wild cranberries are fairly widespread in our great state, and with a little patience, a person can harvest enough to get a good taste.  Continue reading “Foraging in Minnesota: Cranberries”

Bring a Kid: Backpacking

Read More Kids Hike Through Tettegouche

After a hot and sweaty couple of miles on the trail, it didn’t matter how cold the water might be or that there wasn’t really a beach. Once we’d found our campsite, taken off our packs, and changed, my kids and I took to the lake for our hard-earned reward. We spent about an hour playing in the water before going ashore for a break. I was made to promise we weren’t done swimming. After sitting in the shade and eating raspberries a while, my son said wistfully, “I wish we could stay here a week, just to swim and eat berries.” He was in paradise. We all were.  Continue reading “Bring a Kid: Backpacking”

Foraging in Minnesota: Thimbleberries

Read More Rubus parviflorus

August 2005, Isle Royale    My wife and I went ashore from the ferry as it stopped at Windigo. With half an hour until the ferry continued around the island, we went into the visitor center to get our book stamped and ask about what we might find on the trail. We learned about the wolves, moose, and thimbleberries. “Whatberries?” I wasn’t sure if I’d heard correctly. “Thimbleberries,” repeated the Park Service employee. She described the berry she was talking about, and sure enough, we found plenty over our 6 days of hiking the island.  Continue reading “Foraging in Minnesota: Thimbleberries”

Bring a Kid: Berry Picking in MN

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  • Wood Lily
  • Bumper crop of hazelnuts
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Are you looking for a way to get kids into the outdoors? Do you want to do something simple, accessible, universally appealing, and fun? Take them berry picking. 

I took my kids yesterday to some public land in east central Minnesota with the hope of finding some mushrooms and, if lucky, some raspberries or blueberries. Well, blueberries ended up being the main attraction, with some bonus raspberries and mushrooms as well. This is why we call it “foraging,” and not simply “harvesting.” You never know what you’re going to find.  Continue reading “Bring a Kid: Berry Picking in MN”