Until two years ago, I thought that a prune was just a dried plum.
My mind was blown two summers ago when Mike started talking about his prune trees and his plum trees. Brace yourself for some history and plant nerdery – I’ll explain the difference! Unless otherwise cited, all information comes from here.
When we talk about prune trees and plum trees, we’re talking about related plants that came to California from different parts of the world. What we know as prune trees evolved from prunus domestica, which were brought to California by European settlers. In the 1850s, French horticulturalists Louis and Pierre Pellier brought what is now known as the “French prune” trees to California, first selling them from their nursery in San Jose. Prune production in the Santa Clara Valley in the late 1800s and first half of the 1900s contributed to it being coined the “Valley of Heart’s Delight.”
Prunes have a higher sugar content than what we know know as “plums,” which allows them to dry without fermenting around the pit. Since Californian prune production has declined in the last half-century, I believe that what are sold now as “pitted prunes” are mainly dried plums, as they don’t contain the pits.
What we know as plums are derivatives of prunus salicina, and were brought to California from Japan in the 1870s. Luther Burbank bred and introduced many of the most popular cultivars that we enjoy today, most notably the Santa Rosa Plum.
The plant genus prunus contains plums, peaches, cherries and…almonds! “Prune” comes from the Latin prunus. French-speaking friends (and Google Translate) told us that “prune” is French for “plum.” Going further down the rabbit hole, the word “plum” comes from the Old English plume. So, just like we have completely different names for the same things in modern language, the words “prune” and “plum” derived from Latin and Old English and are labels for the same genus of fruit.
I recently listened to the most recent episode of the Ashtanga Dispatch Podcast, in which senior teacher Richard Freeman talks about how the human tendency towards labeling things can create confusion. In the context of that conversation, he was talking about different names for the same yoga posture. The same applies here to plums and prunes – they are simply different names for essentially the same thing.
I love the old prune trees that were likely planted on Mike’s land during the heyday of prune production in Santa Clara County. Though we’re up out of the valley, they remind me that we live in a place that was once dominated by agriculture, not technology. This land is a respite from the daily chaos that greets me down in the 21st century world. These old trees are a reminder that, though much changes over time, nature does her best to endure.