140 years of Minnesota plums

May 15, 2018
by: 
Emily Tepe

Imagine arriving in Minnesota in the mid 1800s. Think about what the landscape must have been like, what the winters must have felt like, what kinds of foods were available. What about fresh fruit? Honeycrisp apples were not piled up at the markets as they are today. In fact, some people thought you'd never be able to grow apples here. (We showed them!)

black and white image of a minnesota homestead in the 1800s

Settlers needed to find other fruits to grow that would survive Minnesota's harsh winters. So they looked to the landscape and found native plums. While they were plentiful, the fruit wasn't very good. A few determined fruit growers began cross-pollinating and selecting seedlings that produced better fruit. After some early successes, the state began supporting these efforts, and eventually in 1878 the University of Minnesota fruit breeding program was born.

Image of O.M. Lord inspecting his DeSoto plum trees in the late 1800s

Since then, the program has developed over 100 hardy fruit varieties, including apples, grapes, plums, cherries, apricots, pears, and berries. In this northern state where early settlers wondered if they'd ever be able to grow fresh fruit, commercial orchards are now dot the landscape and home owners grow fruit trees in their gardens. Some of the very first plum cultivars are still available today!

In recent years, the University of Minnesota fruit breeding program has focused on apples and grapes, yet the program’s early work on plums effectively changed the food landscape for people in northern regions. For almost 140 years, these plum varieties have played an important role in the story of cold climate fruit production: from early settlers seeking food to survive, to today’s consumers seeking a return to locally produced food.

Read the whole story in Minnesota’s Hardy Plums: The Story of a Fruit and its Ties to Rural and Urban Landscape, an article by Emily Tepe, which she presented at the 2017 Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery.

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