Reclaiming the Chickasaw Plum

Just as there are many ways to track time through the calendar year, there can be various methods for charting the lands of this remarkable continent.

A notable effort to reconceive “America” on the basis of culinary geography is documented in the recent book Renewing America’s Food Traditions. Edited by ethnobotanist Gary Paul Nabhan, this lavishly illustrated volume grew from the timely collaboration of seven major organizations committed to “saving and savoring the continent’s most endangered foods.”

Nabhan and his colleagues have mapped North America—including Northwest Mexico and most of Canada—by identifying thirteen regional “food nations” distinguished by place-based foodways. Each food nation is named for an iconic dish, and anyone familiar with Mvskoke tastes will be gratified to learn that Mvskoke country, both before and after Removal, is encompassed by “Cornbread Nation.” Back east, this region borders “Chestnut Nation” and “Gumbo Nation” in the Mvskoke homeland; out west, this agricultural complex shares a boundary with “Bison Nation” running across the Muscogee (Creek) Nation.

The RAFT collaborative has inventoried more than a thousand heirloom varieties and heritage breeds that are currently threatened, endangered, or functionally extinct. Nearly a hundred are profiled in the book, at least half of which were—or still are—indigenous staples. The ten plants and animals detailed in a chapter on Cornbread Nation are as colorfully named as they are appetizing: Yellow Hickory King Dent corn, Mulefoot hog, Southern Queen yam, Early Golden persimmon.

But the most intriguing story here, from a Mvskoke perspective, is surely the so-called Chickasaw plum.

Early colonists coveted the different “wild Plums of America,” the trees as well as their fruits, which was “considered to be of extraordinary excellence in flavor.” The name was coined in 1773 by botanist William Bartram, who mistakenly believed this particular species had been brought to Mvskoke country “from the S. W. beyond the Missisippi, by the Chicasaws.” This identification was codified in 1785 when the plum was assigned a scientific name: “Prunus angustifolia, Chickasaw Plumb.”

George Washington planted three long rows of P. angustifolia behind the garden at Mount Vernon. Thomas Jefferson established the species at eight different locations on his estate, and “of all the tree fruits grown at Monticello today, the Chickasaw plum is the healthiest and most vigorous with its clean, shiny, pest-free foliage and abundant fruit production.”

The plot thickened during the Creek War, nearly two centuries ago, when frontier militia and their Cherokee allies massacred residents of the Hillabee villages near the Tallapoosa River on November 18, 1813. Having also chanced upon a patch of fruit trees, one settler returned home with a supply of native plum pits, which he cultivated in Knox County, Tennessee.

Locals loved the new plum and took to calling it “General Jackson” and “Old Hickory,” commemorating the spoils of war. The looted fruit later made its way to Illinois, where it was propagated under the name “Chickasaw Chief,” and to Wisconsin, where it came to be known as the “Miner” plum, now the Chickasaw’s best-known cultivar.

Writing in 1911, horticulturalist U. P. Hedrick described this species as “one of the most distinct of plums” and “the first of the native plums to be named,” of which there were already more than forty named cultivars. “The fruits are good in quality, attractive in appearance, comparatively curculio-proof [pest-resistant],” and “especially suited for culinary uses.” But industrial agriculture had little use for this native commodity, and over the past century P. angustifolia was nearly lost and forgotten.

Recent discoveries near Horseshoe Bend on the Tallapoosa River, however, have shed new light on both the plum and its history.

Most immigrant writers have assumed this indigenous fruit to be wild. Yet Bartram saw plenty of Chickasaw plums during his travels in Mvskoke country, and he “never saw it wild in the forests, but always in old deserted Indian plantations.” Hedrick also noted that “it is usually found near human habitations and on the margins of fields,” and that “a careful study of recent botanical works indicates that the species is indigenous to the southeastern United States.”

Finally, in 2004, botanists working at Horseshoe Bend National Military Park found six cross-compatible species of native Prunus—including P. angustifolia—near the site of Tohopeka village. It now seems clear that the original specimens taken from Hillabee, a few miles to the west, had been carefully cultivated by Mvskoke growers.

Nabhan and his RAFT colleagues extol this plum for its “primacy among the continent’s great fruits,” concluding that “perhaps the Creek were more accomplished horticulturalists than anyone has given them credit for.”

Muscogee Nation News, September 2011

Sources:

Renewing America’s Food Traditions: Saving and Savoring the Continent’s Most Endangered Foods, edited by Gary Paul Nabhan

The Historie of Travaile into Virginia Britannia, by William Strachey

The History of Carolina, by John Lawson

Travels and Other Writings, by William Bartram

Arbustrum Americanum: The American Grove, by Humphry Marshall

The Diaries of George Washington, Volume IV: 1784–June 1786, edited by Donald Jackson and Dorothy Twohig

The Fruits and Fruit Trees of Monticello, by Peter J. Hatch

The Creek War in Alabama, by Tracy L. Dean and Daniel T. Elliott

The Plums of New York, by U. P. Hedrick

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