About 20 varieties dominate the commercial supply of plums, and most originated in either Asia or Europe. In spite of our stronger cultural connections with Europe when it comes to food, it is actually the Japanese plum that most people would identify as the typical American plum.
Originally from China, these plums were introduced into Japan some 300 years ago, and were eventually brought from there to the United States. Most varieties have yellow or reddish flesh that is quite juicy and skin colors that range from crimson to black-red (but never purple). They are also clingstone fruits—that is, their flesh clings to the pit.
In contrast, European-type plums are smaller, denser and less juicy. They are often blue or purple, and their pits are usually freestone, meaning they separate easily from the flesh. The flesh is golden-yellow.
The domestic plum season extends from May through October, with Japanese types coming on the market first and peaking in August, followed by European varieties in the fall. Here are some varieties of plums you’re likely to find in markets:
- California French plums (d’Agen): These small, meaty European-style plums are descendants of the Frenchpruneaux d’Agen, which are used in France to make prunes. Most of the California French plum crop is destined to be sold as dried plums, but you can occasionally find them fresh.
- Casselman: These smooth, red-skinned plums can be either fairly firm or slightly soft and are very sweet.
- Damson: This small, tart, blue-purple European-type plum is used mainly for jams and preserves.
- El Dorado: This dark, almost black-skinned plum has amber flesh and a sweet flavor even when firm.
- Elephant Heart: Distinguished by their dark, mottled skin, blood-red flesh, and heart shape, these plums are extremely sweet and juicy.
- Empress: These large, dark-blue plums have sweet greenish flesh and taste like prune plums.
- Freedom: This plum is sweet and juicy and has mottled light red skin.
- Friar: These are large, round, black-skinned plums with very sweet, amber flesh.
- Greengage: Distinguished by its deep-green skin, white dusty coating, and succulent yellow flesh, this European clingstone is very popular.
- Kelsey: This large heart-shaped, green-skinned freestone plum is firm and very sweet. The ripe Kelsey often has a red blush to the skin at the tip.
- Laroda: Similar to a Santa Rosa, these mature a little later, are slightly larger, and are very juicy and sweet.
- Mirabelle: This small, round, yellow plum is sweet and full-flavored.
- Nubiana: This large, slightly flat, purple-black, amber-fleshed plum is similar to the El Dorado.
- Plumcot: This is a cross between an apricot and a plum, though it more closely resembles a plum. Some varietal names of plumcots arePlum ParfaitandFlavorella.
- Pluot: This is another hybrid, a cross between a plumcot and a plum, so though there is apricot somewhere in the mix, this fruit looks distinctly like a plum. It is also sold asDinosaur Eggs. It has purplish skin and sweet flesh that ranges in color from amber to red. This hybrid has a long-lasting flavor.
- Prune plums (Italian prune plums): This deep purple plum is covered in a light dusty film that protects it from the weather. Under the purple skin, the flesh is greenish-amber and very sweet. These are tangy when firm, and sweet when mature.
- Santa Rosa: This very popular plum has reddish-purple skin and red-tinged amber flesh. Its taste is tangy-sweet.
See our recipe for Cherry-Plum Compote.