Reclaiming the Mvskoke Plum

POME Magazine, Spring 2019

Food is a necessity for human survival and a focal point of cultural tradition, as in Hokti’s Recipe Book of Creek Indian Foods. The endless variety of local sustenance can serve as the basis for charting the territories on Planet Earth, including our own remarkable continent.

A noteworthy effort to reconceive “America” on the basis of culinary geography is documented in the book Renewing America’s Food Traditions.  Edited by ethnobotanist Gary Paul Nabhan, this lavishly illustrated volume grew from the timely collaboration of seven major organizations committed to “saving and savoring the continent’s most endangered foods.”

Nabhan and his colleagues have mapped North America—including Northwest Mexico and most of Canada—by identifying thirteen regional “food nations” distinguished by place-based foodways.  Each food nation is named for an iconic dish, and anyone familiar with Mvskoke tastes will be gratified to learn that Mvskoke country, both before and after Removal, is encompassed by “Cornbread Nation.”  Back east, this region borders “Chestnut Nation” and “Gumbo Nation” in the Mvskoke homeland; out west, this agricultural complex shares a boundary with “Bison Nation” running across the Muscogee (Creek) Nation.

The RAFT collaborative has inventoried more than a thousand heirloom varieties and heritage breeds that are currently threatened, endangered, or functionally extinct.  Nearly a hundred are profiled in the book, at least half of which were—or still are—indigenous staples.  The ten plants and animals detailed in a chapter on Cornbread Nation are as colorfully named as they are appetizing:  Yellow Hickory King Dent corn, Mulefoot hog, Southern Queen yam, Early Golden persimmon.

But the most intriguing story here, from a Mvskoke perspective, is surely the so-called Chickasaw plum.

Early European colonists coveted the different “wild Plums of America,” the trees as well as their fruit, which was “considered to be of extraordinary excellence in flavor.” The English common name was coined in 1773 by botanist William Bartram, who mistakenly believed this particular species had been brought to Mvskoke country “from the S. W. beyond the Missisippi, by the Chicasaws.”  This mis-identification was codified in 1785 when the plum was assigned a Latin scientific name:  “Prunus angustifolia, Chickasaw Plumb.”

George Washington planted three long rows of P. angustifolia behind the garden at Mount Vernon.  Thomas Jefferson established the species at eight different locations on his plantation, and “of all the tree fruits grown at Monticello today,” the estate’s gardener wrote in 1998, “the Chickasaw plum is the healthiest and most vigorous with its clean, shiny, pest-free foliage and abundant fruit production.”

The plot thickened during the Creek War, over two centuries ago, when frontier militia and their Cherokee allies massacred Mvskoke residents of the Helvpe villages near the Tallapoosa River on November 18, 1813.  Having also chanced upon a patch of fruit trees, one settler returned home with a supply of native plum pits, which he cultivated in Knox County, Tennessee.

Locals loved the new plum and took to calling it “General Jackson” and “Old Hickory,” commemorating the spoils of war at Horseshoe Bend.  The looted fruit later made its way to Illinois, where it was propagated under the name “Chickasaw Chief,” and to Wisconsin, where it came to be known as the “Miner” plum, now the Chickasaw’s best-known cultivar.

Writing in 1911, horticulturalist U. P. Hedrick described this species as “one of the most distinct of plums” and “the first of the native plums to be named,” of which there were already more than forty named cultivars.  “The fruits are good in quality, attractive in appearance, comparatively curculio-proof [pest-resistant],” and “especially suited for culinary uses.”  But industrial agriculture had little use for this indigenous commodity, and over the past century P. angustifolia was nearly lost and forgotten.

Recent discoveries near Horseshoe Bend on the Tallapoosa River, however, have shed new light on both the plum and its history.

Most nonnative writers have assumed this indigenous fruit to be wild.  Yet Bartram saw plenty of Chickasaw plums during his travels in Mvskoke country, and he “never saw it wild in the forests, but always in old deserted Indian” settlements. Hedrick also noted that “it is usually found near human habitations and on the margins of fields,” and that “a careful study of recent botanical works indicates that the species is indigenous to the southeastern United States.”

Finally, in 2004, botanists working at Horseshoe Bend National Military Park found six cross-compatible species of native Prunus—including P. angustifolia—near the site of the Mvskoke fortification.  It now seems clear that the original specimens taken from Helvpe, a few miles to the west, had been carefully cultivated by Mvskoke growers.

Nabhan and his RAFT colleagues extol this plum for its “primacy among the continent’s great fruits,” concluding that “perhaps the Creek were more accomplished horticulturalists than anyone has given them credit for.”

Two months in the Mvskoke calendar are named for indigenous fruits:  Kē-Hvse (Mulberry Month) and Kvco-Hvse (Blackberry Month).  Perhaps someday the dominant culture will acknowledge that the “Chickasaw” plum should be renamed for its Mvskoke cultivators.

[Mvskoke] Plum / Prunus Angustifolia

[Mvskoke] plum . . . is a native shrub or low tree.  It has a wide geographic area of distribution ranging from Maryland to Florida and westward to Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas.  It is found most commonly on sandy soils in pastures or open woods. . . .

Its white flowers are attractive and fragrant in the spring, producing a beautiful flower show.  It should be part of any native landscape planting. . . . The blooms are attractive to honey bees and other pollinator species. . . . The fruits are small, thin-skinned, red, orange-red or yellow, . . . fruiting in June-August. . . . Native Americans regularly consumed fresh fruits of [Mvskoke] plum or dried them for winter. . . .

One-year-old, bare-root seedlings, 18 to 24 inches tall, are used in plantings.  Control of weed and grass competition during the first and second years is important for survival, early growth, and final establishment of the plants.  [Mvskoke] plums are drought tolerant. . . . Once established, the plums should be able to fend for themselves.  If fruit/seed production is the goal, then annual maintenance is required. . . .

[Mvskoke] plum is a popular plant for use in developing wildlife habitat on sandy soils. The thorny thicket is valuable for songbird and game bird nesting, loafing, and roosting.  Various other animals also use it for loafing, bedding, and escape cover.  Numerous species of birds and other animals consume the fruit.  The plums provide nesting cover for northern bobwhites, brown thrashers, northern mockingbirds, and gray catbirds in the southeastern U.S. . . . Rabbits may chew on the bark, but new sprouts will form to replace injured stems. . . .

[Mvskoke] plum is very effective in stabilizing blowing soil.  It may be used in the outside row of windbreaks for ground level protection.  It is also used to stabilize stream banks and gullies. . . . It occurs naturally in sandy soil, but will perform well when planted on heavier clay-loam soils. Although partially shade tolerant, it performs best in full sun. . . .

The search for agricultural diversification has rekindled interest in the domestication and utilization of [Mvskoke] plums as a high value, specialty crop. . . .

United States Department of Agriculture
National Resources Conservation Service

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