In northwest Oklahoma a lot of our native grass pastures are full of wild sand plum bushes. Picking these red orbs is an almost annual tradition for those of us who enjoy making & eating the wonderful jelly or jam. Last year’s drought emptied most of our cupboards of this sweet delicacy, but this was a banner year for sand plums here. Timely rains, no late freezes, and an early spring have produced a bumper crop.
Our son Brian always loved fruit and as a child, he was quite willing to go strawberry, cherry, peach, or apple picking with me anytime because he got to liberally sample the fruit of his labor as he picked. Gathering sand plums with me, however, was a different story.
The word plum is a bit deceptive. The fruits at their best are the size of a large marble, but often are just like pie cherries. They are rather hard, tart and require lots of sugar, so only the birds and deer enjoy them straight from the plum thicket. Not a tasty venture for a grade school boy!
So usually gathering sand plums has been a solitary and sultry experience for me. Alone, wearing a long sleeve shirt and armed with lots of mosquito spray, I try to go picking in the early morning hours.
Hearing the bobwhite quail call nearby and startling the occasional deer or turkey in the quiet pastures, my imagination sees pioneer ancestors among the brambles, buckets in hand; disillusioned children leave their baskets behind to play tag or chase a squirrel. I can visualize Chickasaw Indians, for whom the bush is sometimes named, watching from the nearby hillsides and I feel a part of some long standing gathering tradition.
Some seasons, however, the picking is an excruciatingly hot and humid experience that no amount of imagining alleviates. Pricked by the thorns, swatting bugs away, feeling the sweat trickle down your forehead, and longing for a cool breeze make the filling of a bucket seem interminable.
Not so this morning. The plums are so big and plentiful this year, you can put your bucket at your feet and nearly fill it from a single loaded bush without moving on. No dainty picking here and there, one plum at a time this year! Handfuls thrown into the bucket made quick work of my early morning foray into the wild.
Although the fruit is free and the picking easy, the real work has just begun. Once home I sort the ripe from the near-ripe into big pans on the kitchen counter. When I first began picking, I thought you could only use the fully ripe, but have since learned that even those plums with just a flush of pink will soon ripen to bright red.
In a couple days when most of the fruits are crimson and softened, I’ll bring up the jelly jars from the basement, get out the colander, wooden pestle and big blue enamel cooking pot. If I'm busy farming, I sometimes just pour the prepared plum juice in containers and freeze it to can later at a more convenient time.
Otherwise, gathering some new lids, I’ll be ready to can jelly now. It takes lots of sugar and a little pectin, but soon I’ll be admiring the sparkling little jars cooling in neat rows nearby.
Besides putting the jelly and jam on toast or peanut butter sandwiches for the grandkids, I often use it to make sweet and sour sauce for Chinese food and even add some to cherry pies once in awhile.
Spreading the sweet redness on a hot biscuit some cold morning this winter, I’ll fondly remember the Great Picking of 2012. A few appreciative farming landlords and special friends will enjoy some in their Christmas baskets too.
Some traditions are still worth the trouble.