Growing fruit & nuts

The doomed romance of a pair of plums

two plum trees

Plum trees: Alderman on the right and
La Crescent, fallen over, on the left.

Earlier this week we had some high winds, and our La Crescent plum tree came down. This event was overdue, but the tree had made it through the winter to our surprise, and we hoped to get maybe one last hurrah out of it (fruit trees under stress will sometimes give a good crop of fruit), or at least get a good bloom that might pollinate its mate, Alderman. This was not to be. It was the usual “almost but not quite” that goes with plum trees in these parts.

We planted the two trees about 25 years ago. Since then we have had two really abundant harvests from the La Crescent of small meltingly sweet peach blushed yellow fruits; several years with fewer than a dozen ripe La Crescent; and at most six ripe fruits in all that time from the Alderman. As a result, I have to say I can’t recommend planting plum trees that are not self-pollinating in northeastern Vermont if you need reliable fruit from them.

If you consult reputable nursery catalogs, you will find these two varieties listed as pollen type A (for American), and thus recommended as pollinators for one another. But, alas, as with human relationships, there is so much more to it than that.

Alderman plum blooming

Alderman blooming

Plums are insect pollinated. If it’s windy or raining or too cold, bees can’t fly and pollen doesn’t get transferred. And guess what – here in May more days than not are either windy, raining or cold or all three. We hoped that planting the plums on the leeward side of the barn would shelter them somewhat from the prevailing winds, and improve conditions for pollination flights. I don’t know whether it made a difference or not. You see, the thing is, La Crescent would come into bloom, and then just before the petals started dropping, the first blooms would open on Alderman. Some years there was a window of a day or two when both would have a decent amount of open flowers, and some years not even that. The two were simply out of sync.

So a threesome, maybe? After several years of this, we sought another type A to spice it up and increase our odds. During a visit to a local nursery, I asked which variety would be a good candidate.

“Toka is a good pollinator” said the helpful nursery person.

“Why?” said the customer who asks questions nursery people don’t want to hear. “Is it because it has a lot of flowers, or because it blooms over a long period of time, or because the pollen is particularly good at pollinating, or is it particularly attractive to insects, or…?”

“I don’t know, it’s listed as a good pollinator,” says bewildered nursery person.

OK, sorry, not in the script. We bought a Toka anyway, and made a triangle of plum trees.

Toka lasted about five or six years, was bedeviled by aphids and a woodchuck (I suspect), and simply gave up the ghost. It did bloom copiously for its size a few years and may have been responsible for the two excellent harvests we got from La Crescent. I don’t remember exactly.

Plum tree down

Plum tree down

Plum trees are very brittle, and even with wind shelter from the barn, La Crescent had split down the trunk in high winds many years ago. As a mature tree it has also been barraged by snow sliding off the barn roof. (Note to myself – twelve feet is just too close.)

Above or below the graft?The new shoot

After all this breakage, a couple of years ago I left a shoot coming up from about ground level, knowing the mature tree’s years were numbered. Now, if I had really been on the ball, several weeks ago I would have cut some shoots from the top of the tree to graft back onto this shoot, but somehow over the years plum trees have slipped low on the list of April priorities. Too late now, La Crescent is all leafed out, and it’s chainsaw time. I can’t tell whether the shoot is coming from above or below the graft line (if there was a graft line) of the old tree, so we’ll just wait about 5 more years and see if it’s still a La Crescent …and if Alderman is still hanging around when the new one, whatever it is, blooms again. Stay tuned folks…

Meanwhile, I’m glad most of our fruit trees are apples and pears – they are a lot more rewarding as food sources. Still, our Alderman is a beautiful yard tree and I adore the scent of plum blossoms in May.

16 Responses to “The doomed romance of a pair of plums”

  1. Ottawa Gardener says:

    Shame about the plum tree but I guess it was an intermittant delight. I have a Montreal Plum which is supposed to be self fertile and in the 3 seasons we’ve owned it, it’s provided 2 harvests with the second being large. We shall see about this year. I’m wondering if I should have thinned it last year as it might tend toward a two year bearing cycle.??

  2. the extreme gardener says:

    Hi Ottawa Gardener!
    I wonder if the Montreal plum has anything to do with the Mount Royal plum – a self pollinating, blue (I think) plum that has gotten some good report around here. I’ve had my eye on listings of that variety and have intended to plant one for many years now, just haven’t identified (or created)a suitable spot for it yet…
    I don’t know about plums and two year bearing cycles – on the type A’s the blooms seem annual-regular, but they are often wiped out by frost as the buds break.
    I think thinning is probably a good thing to do anyway. The wood is so brittle, the tree over the long run will benefit if kept in a well balanced shape with light annual pruning. I wish I had been better about that over the years – it might have saved the La Crescent…

  3. Mike says:

    Have you ever considered growing Italian plum/prunes? Ours seems to be productive without fail. We have planted around eight various plum trees in the last few years and the new Italians we planted have grown very quickly compared to the rest. We are also trying a Stanley, as it is supposed to be very cold tolerant and ripens later in the year.

    Sorry to hear about your trees. If you are interested I would be happy to send you some of my little green plum seeds this fall… along with some, fingers crossed, red Belgium endive seed. They are the rootstock of a very, very old Italian tree we have. I’m not sure what kind of plum they are, perhaps some little wild tree used for grafting purposes many years ago. Anyway they grow really fast and could be excellent pollinators for other plums you have or may have in the future. From seed to tree they will be in full bloom in around four years, and practically self sow on their own.


  4. the extreme gardener says:

    Thanks for the offer Mike! Do you know what varieties the Italians are that you have? I’m wondering if Mt. Royal / Montreal is actually an “Italian” plum originally. Mt. Royal is a European type.
    At this point, I think I’ll pass on plum seed. Alderman suckers like crazy, so we may play with that a little. The red Belgian endive sounds very intriguing, if you get enough seed…

  5. Mike says:

    I think my oldest “Italian” is a Fellenburg as near as I can determine. My newest Italians were just listed as Italian. I have wanted to get a Mt. Royal plum, as it would fit nicely into our environment but have not come across any yet. They certainly look like and Italian type plum… hard to say for sure though.

  6. the extreme gardener says:

    Mike, do you have black knot (cherry & plum disease) where you are? Fellenburg sounds really interesting, but a quick google has it listed repeatedly as susceptible to black knot, and black knot is just about everywhere here in northeastern Vermont. We’re surrounded by wild cherries and wild plums afflicted with it.
    St. Lawrence Nurseries has Mt. Royal and Northern Blue (an offspring of Mt. Royal), and they ship plants early spring and fall. Their stuff is very hardy. Also, if anyone in northern Vermont is reading this, Elmore Roots Nursery has Mt. Royal, but they don’t ship.
    I’m leaning towards getting a grafted Mt. Royal or Northern Blue to plant next fall. That’ll give us some time to figure out a good place for it.

  7. Norma says:

    Hi, I’m new to your blog….just found it by Googling Toka plum Vermont. Though I am in the considerably more temperate (maybe?) NorthWEST corner of Vermont, I also have two plum trees that are out of synch. I hand-pollinated the one that was just coming into blossom with the one that was just about to lose all its old blossoms. Eureka! I have embryonic plums on the one I hand-pollinated. Its tag says, “Use Toka for a pollinator” and thus how I ended up here, because I was trying to find a nursery in Vermont that sells them. I’m off to put you on my feedreader list, and also tell my two friends who are in the NE Kingdom and woefully trying to get through this spring gardening thing.

  8. the extreme gardener says:

    Welcome Norma! Hand-pollinating plums – now that’s a labor of love! I’ll be interested to hear how they do. Do you know what varieties you have?
    Elmore Roots has type A plums, too and isn’t too far from you.
    Nice blog you have – I enjoyed the manly asparagus!

  9. Mike says:

    No black knot, so far everything has been disease free. I have never come across a wild plum and there are not many wild cherries in the area, perhaps that makes a difference.

    Thanks for the link to St. Lawrence Nurseries, I will check them out. We like to plant in the fall as all the bare root trees we have planted in autumn have done well. Spring can be a bit hyper as far as weather goes around here, although we did plant a couple new trees the other day. Thanks again for the link.

  10. Ottawa Gardener says:

    You know, I think it is Mount Royal. I just have a crummy memory but that sounds more accurate. It does get black knot though which I cut out but it’s a nuisance. If you want cuttings, I can send some in the spring, just remind me.

  11. Barney says:

    I live in Surrey BC and want to have a couple of plum trees.

    Today it was suggested that I get two Italian trees but I am now finding that I should in fact have two different types as they do better cross polinating???? that is a question.

    I have never had a plum tree before and in this area with lots of rain and little cold and snow it might be very very different than where you live.

    Any suggestions will appreciated.

  12. the extreme gardener says:

    Hi Barney – well, the Italians are supposed to be self-pollinating, so if I could only have 2 trees, I would go with 2 Italians, preferably two different Italian varieties if you can find them. The types that require cross pollination (American and Japanese) are supposed to be pollen compatible groups, so the theory is that you must have two different varieties of the same type for them to pollinate each other. If you stick with the self pollinating Italians, and can find two different Italian varieties, you’ll have the very best chances for good fruiting… I think…

  13. Sam says:


    We also live in central Vermont and planted a few fruit trees when we bouth this home 17 years ago. Our three plum trees, one Toka, and two Alderman’s are planted on the south side of our back barn. They are located twenty feet from the white wall and have a shed blocking winds from the north/west.

    We have averaged about 1100+ lbs of fruit for the past four years. They are given to dozens of friends, and local food banks.

    They are a bit touchy, late frost, high winds, insects etc., all can ruin a crop. We spray the trees with both fruit tree oil in early spring, and organic insecticide through mid July. The bee’s still go beserk on the fruit, but we also do the same.

  14. the extreme gardener says:

    Hi Sam
    Wow, that’s a lot of plums! Do your two Aldermans bloom at the same time? I’ve often wondered whether the varieties are pretty consistent in their timing, or whether individual trees develop their own schedule.
    Do you process the plums at all, and if so, do you remove the skin? We’ve only gotten enough Aldermans to eat fresh. The fruit is big. We found the flesh to be very sweet, but the skin is heavy and astringent. Could be interesting for wine making, though, I suppose…

  15. JimmyTH says:

    The only plum trees I’ve been around that produced without fail were Italian varieties — I’m fairly sure of that — but I don’t think they were the same types. One in the Arkansas Ozarks was definitely a prune plum, had that dark blue color to the fruit. The other was out back of a house I rented in Seattle for about ten years, always had a good crop of reddish blue plums. That was a holdover from an orchard that had been mostly replaced by houses, several of the trees in the neighborhood were standard plum or apple trees and apparently liked the new spacing well enough because they had good crops without anyone really taking care of them. Sometimes there just seems to be no good reason for success.

  16. Marcus Toole says:

    Greetings: I am planting a small orchard in Central Alberta Canada and have been investigating the issue of plums and pollination extensively. There is research out of the U of Saskatchewan that indicates that wild American or Canadian plums, Prunus american or Prunus nigra, are required for pollination of hybrid plums between Japanese plums and either of the American plum species (P. americana, or P. nigra.) They claim that only pure wild plums make good pollinators of these trees and that so cald “native cultivars’ won’t work very well because they all have some Aisian plum genes in them. Technically pure Japanese varieties should pollinate hybrids too, but they tend to bloom too early to be effective. However, if one tree is just a little out of sink, you can put a very heavy layer of mulch around the roots of the earlier blooming tree thereby delaying the spring thaw by a few days and thereby delay the spring bloom a few days. The above will only help if the trees are missing each other by a couple of days. you can also try to improve insect pollinator availability by creating a bee condo by simply drilling holes into some old standing wood. Carpenter bees are more active at low temperatures than honey bees and make better pollinators in cool weather. Once again, if you have some old 4/4s or logs hanging around, its worth a try. Oh, if your wild pollinator blooms too late, try training some limbs to grow close to the grownd. The low branch should bloom earlier by a few days. (Once again, we are talking a couple of days earlier, not a couple of weeks. Lastly, a 20 year old plum tree is a very old tree by plum standards. Given your situation, I would start over with new trees. If you have any thickets of wild plums growing in your area. I would simply dig one up and use it as a pollinator and then get a nice cold tolerant hybrid. Trust me, finding a true wild plum in a nursery is not that easy. I have found a couple, but they are tiny babies.

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