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How to Grow and Care for an American Wild Plum Tree (Prunus Americana)

Dorothy is a master gardener, former newspaper reporter, and the author of several books. Michael is a landscape and nature photographer.

One lone plum from our American wild plum tree in our back yard, although there are lots more on it, so I'm looking for jelly recipes now.

One lone plum from our American wild plum tree in our back yard, although there are lots more on it, so I'm looking for jelly recipes now.

Wild Plum Trees

We've only lived in New Mexico for about a year or so, and I'm discovering a whole new range of plants, fruits, flowers...and bugs that I never knew about before. Not that we didn't have those things in Arkansas, but people here seem to love growing various fruit trees and strange flowers. And bugs? Well, let's just say there are some interesting creatures running around out and about the cacti, but that's for another article another time. This particular article is about how and why you should grow a wild plum tree (Prunus americana) if you have space and are in a zone in which they grow hardy. According to the United States Department of Agriculture, this would be zones 3-8.

In the spring, the wild plum tree is covered with beautiful white flowers, so not only do they produce edible fruit, they are very nice to look at.

As you can see, our tree has produced a lot of wild plums, which makes all of the birds that come to our yard very happy.  So far, I haven't used any of the plums, but have left them out there for the birds.

As you can see, our tree has produced a lot of wild plums, which makes all of the birds that come to our yard very happy. So far, I haven't used any of the plums, but have left them out there for the birds.

These Are the Things You Will Need

  • A small wild plum tree. (If you Google "where can I buy an American wild plum tree?" you will find there are many online places from which to order. Since our tree was already here when we moved in, I'll have to leave it up to each of you to do your research on the places from which to buy.)
  • A garden hose.
  • Some 10-10-10 slow-release fertilizer. (10-10-10 simply means that the fertilizer contains 10% of each of three nutrients - nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium., and, as usual, I recommend Miracle Gro®.)
  • Some insecticidal soap.
  • A pair of pruning shears.
  • Some mulch.
  • A garden rake.
  • A large pruning tool (loppers*).

*According to, you should probably pick your large pruning tool from one of these, which are the ones they consider to be the best choices, along with their ranking for each. You can go to their website for more detailed information on their choices.

  • Fiskars 32 Inch PowerGear2 Lopper - Rated A+
  • Corona SL 3264 ComfortGEL Bypass Lopper - Rated A
  • Spear & Jackson 8290RS Razorsharp Heavy Duty Telescopic Ratchet Anvil Loppers - Rated A
  • Tree Power Lopper Tabor GL-18 Garden Bypass Pruner - Rated A+
  • Craftsman Compound Action Bypass Lopper - Rated B
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Not Exactly a Tree; Not Exactly a Shrub

An American wild plum tree doesn't exactly look like a tree, but it doesn't exactly look like a shrub, so I'm guessing that pruning has a great deal to do with your tree's appearance. In the spring, the long, oval green leaves cover the branches and the tree/shrub is covered with clusters of white flowers - they are beautiful to look at and are a great segue to the wild plums that are to come in the summer. The trees are hardy in U.S. Department of Agriculture zones 3-8.

  • The American wild plum tree does best when exposed to full sunlight, and is planted in an area with slightly dry soil. The area also needs to be fast draining, so the trees will need a very minimal amount of maintenance.
  • Don't put mulch too close to the main trunk of the tree, because moisture will be trapped and the bark could rot. Do, however, spread about two inches of mulch several inches away from the main trunk with a rake when leaves begin to show.
  • During its first year, you will need to water the tree about once every 7-10 days, but don't allow the soil to get soggy. After the first year, reduce the watering schedule (only water when temperatures are extremely hot - >90 degrees - or when there is very little rain). The tree should be established enough to go into a self-maintenance mode unless you have a period of extreme drought, during which you might need to nudge it along with a little bit of water.
  • Before buds bloom in the spring, feed with 10-10-10 slow-release fertilizer (about 6-8 ounces for each year the tree has been planted, but never exceed a pound of fertilizer at once). The fertilizer granules should be spread evenly around the tree, beginning about 10-12 inches away from the trunk, then raked into the top few inches of soil. Watering thoroughly will activate the fertilizer granules.
  • If you are having a problem with aphids, you might want to turn loose some ladybugs and they'll eat aphids like crazy. You can also spray some water on the leaves, but do it early in the day before it gets too hot. You could also use an insecticidal soap or horticulture oil if you don't want to use ladybugs.
  • In the late winter, and while the tree is still dormant, remove any dead or broken limbs, along with any that look like they might be diseased by cutting about a half-inch above an outward lateral branch or growth node. You will need to use pruning shears if the limbs are small; and loppers for larger branches. If you have any branches that are wider than about an inch and a half, you might want to consider pruning saw.
  • If you have branches that are rubbing against each other, you will need to remove one or more of those, depending on how many are necessary so that they are no longer rubbing.
  • Removing the oldest branches first, you should thin your tree by about one-third.
  • In the spring, you will need to prune the tree after the new growth has finished and starts to harden. You will also need to get rid of any suckers growing from the base of the tree; any water sprouts; or straight vertical suckers located in the canopy of the tree/shrub.
  • Cut back all aggressive branches in order to retain an overall rounded shape.
Wild American Plum Tree.

Wild American Plum Tree.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

Questions & Answers

Question: My fruit set on wild plum is a pithy deformed fruit. What is it? How do I cure the problem?

Answer: It sounds like your tree has "plum pocket disease." You can Google it online for more complete information, but it is usually treated with fungicide sprays. Choose a product labeled for use against plum pocket and follow the label instructions carefully. The best time to spray most fungicides is early spring just before the buds begin to swell, unless the fungicide instructions direct otherwise. Good luck to you. I hope the information helps, but plum pocket disease is my best guess without seeing the tree.

© 2017 Mike and Dorothy McKenney

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