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Where Do Prunes Come From

by Annabel Caldwell
Where Do Prunes Come From

Where Do Prunes Come From

Prunes are dried plums. They come from specific plum varieties that are intended to be dried rather than consumed as fresh fruit. It was once customary in parts of Europe to call plums “fresh prunes” while Americans use “prune” for the dried version. California is responsible for the majority of the world’s prunes.

When you’re standing in a grocery store produce section and see packages labeled “California Fresh,” it can sometimes be difficult to know exactly what kind of fruit they contain. Is it an apple? A pomegranate? Some other type of citrus fruit? If you think about it, most fruits look pretty similar at first glance, so the answer isn’t always obvious based on appearance alone. The same thing happens with plums — people often don’t realize they have any in their kitchen until someone brings up how delicious they are. But where do these beauties come from anyway?
There are actually two types of plums that we commonly eat: green or yellow-green (also called clingstone) and red or purple (also known as non-clinging). In general, the latter type are more popular as fresh market products because they’re easier to grow. That said, many people prefer them dry, which can be accomplished through either sun drying or electric dehydrators. Dried plums are also sold in cans or jars as well. As far as production goes, the United States produces around 1 billion pounds of both kinds of plums annually. Just like peaches, apricots and nectarines all fall into the category of summertime favorites, plums get a lot of love during peak growing seasons between May and September.
The two main varieties of plum trees include the Italian variety and the Chinese variety. While there aren’t too many differences between the two, one difference worth mentioning is size. Generally speaking, Italian plums tend to be smaller than their Chinese counterparts. Both types of plums start out life as seedlings; however, only the European plum tree will survive long enough to bear fruit. This is due to the fact that Asian plums take much longer to reach maturity compared to those grown in Italy. Fortunately, when it comes to harvesting, this shouldn’t make much of a difference since both varieties usually ripen within a couple weeks of each other.
Although they may seem interchangeable, there are some distinct differences between the two. For example, Italian plums generally weigh less than their Chinese counterparts and are slightly larger in diameter. Additionally, Italian plums tend to be sweeter whereas Chinese plums are less sweet [sources: National Plum Board, National Cherry Festival]. These slight variations help determine price points and consumer demand.
It turns out that prunes are not technically plums but dried versions of the fruit instead. Although they are derived from the plum family, they are not closely related to actual plums. Instead, prunes are classified under the drupe family. Drupes are soft fruits such as apples, cherries, peaches and even coconuts. Prunes are considered to be a variety of cherry, although they don’t taste very much like cherries.
What makes prunes different is that they are made specifically for drying. Unlike cherries, they are high in acidity, making them ideal candidates for preservation. And unlike apples, they’ve got seeds inside of them. So where did these tasty little morsels originate? Read ahead to find out!
Plum Varieties
Before we delve into the history of prunes, let’s talk about the different varieties of plums available. Plums are widely used by growers throughout the country as ornamentals. There are over 200 species of plum trees, ranging anywhere from small shrubs to large trees. Of these, just three varieties account for almost 90 percent of the total crop produced: white, Italian and Chinese.
White plums were originally cultivated in China and later introduced to Italy. White plums are characterized by their rich color, mild flavor and firm flesh. On average, they weigh 2 to 3 pounds per gallon and range in diameter from 0.75 inches to 1 inch (.19 to.25 cm). When they’re fully ripe, they’ll turn dark brown.
Italian plums originated in Italy and are quite popular among consumers who enjoy tart flavors. Their skin is typically greenish in color and has a thin covering of fuzz. Inside, there are usually five to six seeds, each weighing approximately half a gram. Italian plums are medium sized, averaging at around 4 pounds per gallon and measuring roughly 1 inch to 1.5 inches (.3 to.38 cm) across. Once ripe, they develop a deep maroon color.
Chinese plums are the largest variety of plums in the U.S., accounting for about 20 percent of the nation’s annual consumption. They are also the least expensive and are the easiest to harvest. Chinese plums are known for having thick skins and bright colors, including orange, yellow, red and black. Their flesh ranges from light yellow to pink and tastes mildly acidic.
On the next page, learn why certain countries consider plums to be “fruits.”
In addition to being eaten raw, prunes are also often cooked, preserved and processed into jams, jellies and syrups. One reason for this is that they contain antioxidants called polyphenols, which protect against cancer, heart disease and aging. Another reason is that cooking breaks down the cell walls, allowing for better absorption of the active ingredients.
History of Prunes
If you’ve ever seen a picture of ancient Rome, then you already know that Romans enjoyed eating plums. Plums became part of Roman culture after Julius Caesar incorporated them into his daily diet. Historians believe that they started cultivating plums in Southern France around 600 B.C.E., and they soon spread throughout Europe and Asia Minor.
But what happened to cause the disappearance of the original plums? Over time, cultivation shifted away from wild varieties toward domestic ones. Farmers began crossbreeding the best tasting varieties together to create new hybrids. During this period, farmers discovered that certain varieties would become dormant during cold weather, causing the buds to stop developing and thus preventing fruit formation. To combat this problem, farmers developed methods of removing the leaves and branches from the trees’ lower portions to allow sunlight to penetrate deeper into the ground. Afterward, the remaining upper portion of the tree could continue to produce blossoms and fruits year round.
By the Middle Ages, the tradition of preserving plums had been established. At this point, most of the work of picking plums had been completed, and farmers moved onto processing them. They stripped off the outer bark, removed stones and pits and finally washed them. Then they packed the fruit in barrels sealed with wax. Later, they added brandy and left the product in the sun to ferment before sending it off to markets.
Over time, the process of manufacturing prunes changed considerably. In 1881, French chemist Louis Pasteur invented pasteurization, a process that heats the product to reduce spoilage. Heating also helps break down enzymes in the product, helping preserve its nutrients. Today, the industry is still moving forward with innovation. For instance, in 2003, scientists came up with a way to genetically modify plums to increase vitamin C content.
To learn more about prunes and other foods, try visiting the links on the following page.
While it seems impossible to imagine, prunes didn’t gain popularity in America until the 1950s. Before this time, American consumers weren’t interested in buying the tiny dried fruits because they thought they looked unappetizing. However, the discovery of vitamins A, B1 and K led people to reevaluate them and change their minds. Since prunes are low in calories, fat free and high in fiber, they quickly became a healthy alternative to candy bars and sodas. ­

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