In season: Plums and Pluots (a.k.a. plumcots)

For generations, plums have been a California delicacy, sweet and juicy straight off the tree. But in recent years, the old-time favorites have been replaced by fast-rising hybrid stars. The familiar Santa Rosas are making way for Dinosaur Eggs.

California produces more than 90 percent of the nation’s plums. Many growers are phasing in new “interspecific plum” hybrids, often crossed with apricots and commonly called Pluots or plumcots.

“Looking at the varieties (coming to market), we’re seeing more primary varieties of Pluots than primary plum varieties,” said Barry Bedwell of the California Grape and Tree Fruit League. “Clearly, the trend is towards the interspecific plum hybrids.”

Now is the height of plum season.

“Like most fruit this year, it’s coming off a little early,” Bedwell said. “Most varieties are running about a week earlier than normal. The majority will come in within the next 45 days.”

The drought has put limitations on many California farmers, but plums of all kinds seem to be doing OK.

“Our growers are getting by with groundwater supply,” Bedwell noted. “The good news: There’s a lot of good fruit. When trees are dried out a little bit, they try to push out even more fruit; it’s nature’s way of coping with drought – who knows how much water (the trees) will get next year. So, 2014 will be a good year for both growers and consumers. But our concern is about the future; (if the drought continues), we could see wells going dry.”

Consumers have embraced the new varieties of plum hybrids with catchy names, Bedwell said.

“There’s a different philosophy now in naming fruit,” he said. “The old Santa Rosa and Angelina plums; they gave you a sense of place. But now, a little more marketing goes into it. We’ve got Flavor Grenades and Dinosaur Eggs (both Pluots); who wouldn’t want to try one of those?”

While prune plums grow primarily in the Sacramento Valley, California’s fresh plum belt centers in the lower San Joaquin Valley.

“The growers are really concentrated in Fresno, Tulare, Kings and Kern counties,” Bedwell said.

In the past 15 years, Pluots and plumcots have become increasingly more common in California orchards. Each variety has a short season – three or four weeks – but those seasons string together from May through October.

“The open pollination of plums and apricots has added a lot of flavor, a lot of aroma, a lot of crispness,” said fruit grower David Jackson of Family Tree Farms near Reedley. “The sugar (content) also goes up. There are so many different colors. It’s kind of become a jelly bean factory.”

A seventh-generation farmer, Jackson and his family grow 4,500 acres of stone fruit – peaches, plums, nectarines and plum crosses – or as he says, “the most flavorful fruit in the world.”

He prefers the name “plumcot” to Pluot, which is trademarked by Modesto plant breeder Floyd Zaiger of Zaiger’s Genetics. (Zaiger’s hybrid Pluots are sold through Dave Wilson Nursery.)

“Floyd really is the father of all this,” Jackson said. “When you see Pluot, you know it’s Floyd’s. Now, all these other people see how good this fruit can be. So, we’re seeing people all over the world trying to (breed) these things.”

The name Pluot (pronounced plew-ott) also tended to raise more eyebrows than recognition, he noted.

“We’ve been one of the biggest proponents of Pluots from the start,” Jackson said. “We’re always trying to explain to everybody what a Pluot is. They’d see that word and say, ‘Plot?’ ‘Plute?’ ‘What?’ It’s a combination of a plum and an apricot; when you say it’s a plumcot, people understand that.”

Jackson’s favorite plumcots are Flavor Grenade (an extra juicy yellow-green Pluot developed by Zaiger) and his farm’s own trademarked Family Tree Plumogranate, which looks as red as a pomegranate. Family Tree Farms grows close to 70 varieties of plumcots and is always looking for new ones.

“It’s very exciting,” Jackson said. “We do a lot of our own research and development. We do taste tests with fruit from 28 different (hybridizers) from around the world. We look at hundreds of different plumcots.”

Which means shoppers can expect more plumcot variations coming to markets soon.

“Instead of just red or black plums, we have a whole rainbow,” Jackson said. “They’re crispy and flavorful. They’ve added a sparkle to summer fruit.”