Thursday, March 1, 2012
Today's plains dwellers cannot appreciate what a welcome sight those blooming bushes were to the early settlers, who longed for the taste of fresh fruit. Sand hill plums are hardly bigger than cranberries, and unlike cranberries, the fruit has a central seed nearly half the size of the plum itself, leaving very little edible fruit between the seed and the outer skin. Regardless, the settlers enjoyed the beauty and slight fragrance of the blossoms and crossed their fingers that frost would not return to freeze the blossoms and deprive them of that season's tart little plums.
Isaac had a thicket on his "Timber Hill" but he had also saved seeds from some of the best plums to plant plum bushes near his house, finding that it took the seeds two or three seasons to germinate. They were also difficult to transplant because the bushes colonize from one bush with a deep root to form shallow-rooted bushes around it. These shallow-rooted bushes are unlikely to survive if transplanted, and it is difficult to tell without digging which among the bushes is the one with the deep root. Isaac explained in his Journal: "I took up some select Plum bushes on timber hill and set them in rows N. of house patch, 2 rows E. & W. Transplanting Plums generally failures by many. I determined to experiment at least, then also transplant some in the spring."
As a bachelor, Isaac had learned to cook for himself, but he never mentions attempting to preserve fruit. It would be nice to imagine that one of the neighbors who stripped the plum bushes to spite Mrs. Frack might have made a jar of plum jelly for Isaac, but he only describes the annual pleasure of gorging on whatever fruit was in season.
For my family, enough jars of sand hill plum jelly were canned every summer to last through the year. They were stored with the canned tomatoes, green beans, and two kinds of pickles on rows of shelves in the basement, the walls a kaleidoscope of tomato red, green beans, mossy green dills, noxiously-tinted (with green cake coloring) 3-day lime pickles, and the glow of the scarlet plum jelly. I do not continue the tradition of canning vegetables, except rare years when I can the 3-day lime pickles, but I do make plum jelly. Last year's late frost and summer drought left only a lonesome plum here and there, and we are down to the last jar of the previous year's jelly. One day, I set that jar with one that we received as a wedding favor in the window to admire the beauty of sunlight through the jelly.
When we finish that last jar of jelly, we, like Isaac, will be forced to await another season's crop from the tough and prickly sand hill plum bushes with their sweet-tart little plums.