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Tuesday, February 23, 2021

Our Winter Fruit Supply: Italian Prunes

Our Italian Prune plum tree may still be in it's annual winter dormancy, but we are enjoying its fruit anyway.

Let me tell you a little about Italian Prune plums.

This tree begins ripening in early September in my yard. In our rented unit many years ago, the Italian Prune ripened in August. I think it's a partial shade thing in this yard that leads to later ripening. I spend most of September harvesting all of those delicious plums. 

A couple of years ago, I bought a claw and basket fruit-harvesting tool to screw onto one of our extension poles. With this tool, I was able to harvest all of the plums myself without climbing the tree or using a ladder this year. The claw slides in between the stem and the fruit. With a quick tug, the fruit falls into the basket just a few inches below the claw. This tool is designed for apples and pears, but as I discovered, it also works well on smaller fruit like plums.

I estimate that I harvested about 40 pounds of fruit this past season. I'm certain that we have recouped our original cost of about $30 (mail order) for this plum tree (bought 15 years ago). In checking prices today for the same tree, a bare root sells for between $38 and $50. Mine is grafted onto dwarfing root stock, so it will never overtake its spot in our yard or become too tall for me to harvest.

Italian Prune trees are self-fertile (meaning they don't need a pollinator to produce fruit), heavy-setting, hardy in zones 4 though 9, have a chill requirement that will work for all but Florida in the continental US, and while experts say they require full sun, our partially sunny (5 to 6 hours of direct sun) backyard has been okay for our tree (ripens a few weeks before first frost). Our tree began fruiting at 3 years, with full production at around 5 or 6 years. 

In my area of the PNW, nurseries are just now beginning to ship bare root trees. I believe I planted our plum tree in mid-March. 

The fruit ripens on the tree over about a 3-week period in late summer and will keep refrigerated for about 10 days. Due to this short keeping time, the fresh plums need preserving in some way. I preserve our plums as pitted halves canned in heavy syrup, pitted halves frozen to use in pies and cobblers, as jam or in chutney, and pitted and dried as prunes. Plums and other fruit can be dried on trays in a low oven, in full sun on racks and covered by cheesecloth, or in a dehydrator.

Other details -- Fresh plums have a whitish "bloom" on the skin. This isn't mold. When I dehydrate my plums, the 'bloom" remains on the skin. Again, this isn't mold. Italian Prune plums are free-stone, so they're easy to pit for preserving.

Our family's favorite way to use the dried prunes is stewed. Stewed prunes sounds like such an "old people" food, right? But really, these are delicious, especially when flavored!

This is how I make stewed prunes:

  • I place about 1 cup of dried prunes in a stainless saucepan (enameled is good too), cover with water, then bring to a boil.

  • Once boiling, I reduce the heat, cover and simmer for 10 minutes.
  • After 10 minutes, I turn the stove off and add a tablespoon or two of sugar or honey and allow to cool.
  • A jar of stewed prunes keeps in the fridge for about 1 week.
  • The prunes can be flavored by simmering with aromatics, such as a slice of fresh ginger (my favorite), a few strips of lemon or orange peel, a cinnamon stick, a couple of whole cloves, a dash of ground nutmeg, and/or a few whole allspice berries, or with a few drops of almond extract or any of the above spices. ground, added after cooking. I sometimes use the pineapple juice from canned pineapple slices for stewing the prunes, too.
Pureed stewed prunes can also be used as a fat substitute in baking chocolate cake or brownies. 

I think prunes get a bad rap. And I'm not the only one who thinks that. Commercial packagers have begun labeling prunes as "dried plums." It seems the name "prune" has a derogatory association with it, calling a mean old woman an "old prune" or the description of how our toes or fingers look when they've been soaking in water or how prunes are often used for digestive reasons. Years ago, Prune was a somewhat common girl's name in France. I think that might be a hard sell as a baby name here in the US in the 21st century. Whatever the fruit is called, my family enjoys the plums fresh and preserved as prunes to use in winter. It's been a prolific tree for us and has saved at least a couple of hundred dollars over buying fruit.

How about you? Are you a prune-eater or a prune-hater?


  1. We usually have some stewed prunes in the frig. I use leftover tea to cook them - it adds a different, richer flavor to the syrup that forms. Good for breakfast with Greek yogurt. I think I'll add some ginger to the next batch, as you suggest.

    1. Hi Mumfypat,
      Wow, tea-infused stewed prunes sound extraordinary. I will definitely try that out. Thank you for the suggestion! I do love the ginger flavor, even when it's just a pinch of ground ginger added after cooking. A little lemon peel and some ginger, yum!

      Have a great day, Mumfypat!

  2. I like both plums and prunes. I'm not sure I've ever eaten prunes that weren't commercially harvested and am wondering if they taste different.

    When I was in high school and college, I spent my summers working as a cook at a church camp. We received food subsidized by the government--one of the things they provided for us was a HUGE amount of prunes. We stored them in giant plastic garbage containers with a tight fitting lid. We mostly fed kids and teens, and as you can imagine, the word "prune" was not likely to entice many of them to eat it. We ended up using the prunes in a spice cake and it was delicious. We only would tell people what was in the cake after they had gobbled it down. Funny memory.

    1. Not nearly so funny, but you reminded me of a camp memory. One of the Girl Scout camps I went to had a plum tree along one of the paths that we could eat freely from. I remember that those plums were very good. I don't think I've had plums straight from a tree since them.

    2. Hi Kris,
      my home-grown prunes, as prunes not plums, aren't as sticky and sweet as commercial prunes. I also think our tree prunes are not as intense in flavor as the commercial ones. I'm guessing that I don't allow mine to ripen on the tree as long. But we enjoy our tree plums and prunes quite a lot, nonetheless.

      Isn't that funny about the kids at camp and the prunes. At least you and your co-workers found a way to get the kids to eat them! Spice cake with prunes sounds delicious. Do you remember is the simply prunes were chopped or stewed and pureed?

    3. They were chopped. I couldn't tell you what the recipe was. That was many years ago! We staff thought it was an odd food for a government subsidy but we tried our best to use it.

  3. I like both plums and prunes but don't eat either of them regularly. My mother made a lot of stewed prunes when I was growing up.

    Your plums look so pretty. Do you have many problems with bugs with them?

    1. Hi Live and Learn,
      I think stewed prunes were more popular as family food when we were growing up and earlier.
      This type of plum does pretty well in our yard. In some years, we have some sort of larvae in some of the fruit, but they're easy to find, near the pointed end and not throughout, so I can just cut that part off. This past year, I don't think I saw a single larvae in any of the plums I processed. I don't use any sprays on our trees. If we do have bugs, we just live with it. The bugs don't destroy the whole fruit for the most part. Our cherries and red currants seem to get most of the pests. I try to minimize the pests by really cleaning up the areas under the trees and bushes each year.

  4. I love plums, prunes whatever you want to call them! Mom used to can them when I was a child and we ate them for dessert. I don't can them today because my family won't eat them but I have some dried (still gooey) that I eat to help regulate digestion :)

    1. Hi Alice,
      no point in canning something your family doesn't want to eat, right?
      I love really gooey prunes. They're like candy to me. And they do have that added benefit!
      Have a great day, Alice!

  5. I haven't had stewed prunes before, but I would definitely give them a try. I have had prune juice and plum sauce in cooking, but I need to expand my thinking apparently and give stewed ones a chance. I will look for neighbors begging for someone to come pick plums off of their trees this year - something I have ignored in the past. As always, thanks for the tip!

    1. Hi Ruthie,
      definitely! A lot of people with fruit trees are glad to have someone come pick some of the fruit. And plums can be so prolific and have such a short fresh-storage life, that folks don't want them going to waste. I hope this works out for you!


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