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This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on August 4, 2007 11:32 PM. The previous post in this blog was Threatened species. The next post in this blog is A vote of confidence for Big Brother. Many more can be found on the main index page or by looking through the archives.



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Saturday, August 4, 2007

Curse of the plums

It probably seemed like a good idea at the time: Plant plum trees along Portland streets. Not only will you get those sweet-smelling blossoms in the spring, but you'll have an abundant harvest of fruit in midsummer. Juicy, red plums -- yum!

It didn't quite work out that way. Here we are, many decades after these trees were introduced onto the parking strips, and nobody we know is doing anything useful with the plums. We're all just cussing them out.

We don't have a plum tree on our property, but the next-door neighbors do. And we have ample prior experience: We had several of them along the parking strips on our corner lot down in the Buckman neighborhood a decade ago. Every mid-July, the fruit comes on and starts to drop. The fruit is dark purple and contains a small amount of bright red pulp and juice. Unless you sit out there day and night scooping up the little golf ball-sized globes with their hard yellow pits, people walking along are going to smush them. Including you, your mail carrier, and everybody who crosses the threshold of your home. Next thing you know, the red juice is on your floors, getting ground into your rugs. Your car mats start to draw fruit flies.

The falling of the infernal crop invariably coincides with hot weather. And when the smushed plums get baked onto the sidewalk, they cling to the concrete with a tenacity rivaling that of epoxy glue. A garden hose at full blast, a half-inch from them, won't budge them. Nor will a stiff push broom, or a combination of the two. The only way to extract the baked plums from a walk or driveway is to do so with a scrub brush or one's fingers. One plum at a time. The expletives pour out along with the sweat.

One would think that making something out of all that fruit would be a thriving pastime. Not on the Portland blocks where we've dealt with the plums. Into the yard debris they go.

Except for one unforgettable neighbor down in Buckman. This elderly gal lived in an old, old Portland house a couple of blocks off Hawthorne, toward Belmont in the 20s. Her place has literally never been painted since it was built nearly a century ago. If it's been re-roofed over its lifetime, it was many decades ago. It's got a dilapidated garage that's covered in graffiti, inside and out. If you live in that 'hood, you doubtlessly know the place I'm talking about.

Now, to say this neighbor was eccentric is kind of like saying that Lindsay Lohan has some issues. She rarely emerged from that house, and never in daylight. Once in a while, she'd be out on her lawn in the middle of the night, picking dandelions (of which her yard sported many) by the light of a headlamp. Her adult son, who bore an unsettling resemblance to the Unabomber, could be seen in the afternoons, driving a derelict old truck which he'd park outside the house. But the mom hardly ever came out, and only at night.

Around 10:30 one Sunday night during the season of the dropping of the plums, our doorbell rang. It was the old woman, with whom we had never before spoken. "What are you going to do with all that fruit?" she asked. Sweep it up, scrub it off the sidewalks, and throw it away, we told her. She asked if she could come and pick some of it. By all means, we replied, take whatever you want.

And so she brought over her ladder and started picking. We wondered what she was planning to do with the plums, which at their size and mostly pit, aren't much of a taste treat. I thought that she was making wine, for sure -- she seemed like a home-winemaking kind of individual. I figured that that was where the dandelions were going, too. A few days later, she brought over some jam that she had made from the plums. I ate a little of it -- it wasn't bad -- but the Mrs. refused to touch it.

We soon left Buckman, and it was to our dismay that we realized that our new home in Irvington was also under the influence of the plums. It looks as though they lined both sides of our block at one time, before a few people got sick of them and changed them out for something else. (Can you imagine even proposing such a thing to the Portland bureaucrats today? Ha ha!) But the one next door is still there, right in our faces, its nasty little products lying in wait to wedge themselves in our modern, textured plastic soles, there to lurk, certain to show up later on a carpet.

When we got home yesterday from a fantastic week at the coast, the worst of the plums greeted us. Hundreds, in every state of decay, from the freshly dropped and ready to be tracked all over, to the caked-on, baked-on that cling to the pavement so ferociously.

This evening we attacked with buckets and brooms and detergent and brushes and fingernails that will now be stained maroon for days. Being from New Jersey originally, I couldn't help but think dark thoughts about the plums, which I'm told are of Italian origin. I muttered, "This tree is a going to have an accident soon. It's going to get very sick and die somehow. Maybe a few copper nails are accidentally going to wind up in its trunk, and it's going to go away. Then it can be replaced with a couple of nice little ornamental trees that don't drop cr*p all over."

If this was Jersey, there'd be guys that could take care of a tree like this for you. They wouldn't need no permit from the yo-yos down in City Hall, either. "Hey, can I help it if the tree got sick and died? It's da cycle of life."

Anyway, about 20 minutes after we called the job done for the day, we noticed about a half-dozen more plums, freshly dropped. If you catch them when they first hit, you can just wing them out into the street, where they're somebody else's problem. But there are so many of the darn things still waiting to do their Sir Isaac Newton act. Maybe I ought to drop by that old lady's house in Buckman, and see if she's still there. It's getting close to midnight -- this would be a good time to go.

Comments (21)

Plums are like that. They set waay too heavy a crop then dump a squishy mess underfoot.

I'm surprised this has fruit at all, most of the purple leaf plums are flowering and bear only the occasional plum.
My folks have a tree in their yard(!) but they get maybe a plum a year from it.Like you said they are not really good.

I've heard spraying the blossoms really hard in the spring can keep them from setting a crop. I mean it rains a lot in Portland during the spring anyway......

I hear that you have to spray a lot, and on exactly the right day, or else it does no good.

I feel the same way about leaves. Trees cause some of the worst pollution there is.

Ask any Slovenian - the answer is slivovka.

Ah, freshly squished fruit! Yet another reason to remove shoes upon entering the house!

Sounds like just plum terrorism.

A very entertaining post. You ought to be offered a "plum" writing job at the New York Times. Even with its newly diminished size, it's still a great paper.

So, when you work with plums, are you called a plummer?

Wouldn't a power washer do the removal job faster and easier?

Wouldn't a power washer do the removal job faster and easier?

Step 1: Wait 'til neighbor gets home to go over and borrow power washer.

Step 2: Chat with neighbor for half hour.

Jack, I feel your pain. I had a HUGE yellow plum tree in my back yard, which was 'fruitful' and multiplied. After I finally spent a bunch of money putting the area around the deck into pavers, I had a bumper crop. I would sit on the deck and listen to the wet plop of overripe plums hit the pristine pavers and cause a minor tsunami in the dog's baby pool.

Finally paid an arborist to take out the tree, resulting in broken water lines and major disruption. Then had to power wash the pavers to clean up the stains, some of which you can still see.

Happy to be plum free! (It was pretty in the spring though!)

Plum trees tend to form most of their fruiting buds on long shoots. If you prune the tree hard by lopping off all the shoots you can get rid of most of the fruiting buds and fruit.

As for spraying I once heard of a spray people in CA w/olive trees in their yards use to keep the trees from fruiting. It may work only on olives.

"Ask any Slovenian - the answer is slivovka."

Or any regular, run of the mill Slav... (ie Russian, Pole, Czech or Slovak, etc)

Slivovica (Slee voh veetzahhh) is the closest thing to fire water there is. Back in the old country, every family had an Ujo (mine was Ujo Laco) who brewed a batch at home.

The trick to drinking that stuff was to take a deep breath and hold it, drink the shot all at once, then exhale for the next 20-30 secs. Never breath in until the vapors are gone.

Maybe I'm missing something here. Why don't you home 'can' them, and eat them, of the wonderful bounty God provides?

This world, and its graces, isn't to your liking?

Hmmm...Are these plums anywhere a large, heavy vehicle might run or back into them?

If they are in a parking strip, the city will probably require that they be replaced, but they will now actively discourage you from planting a new fruit-bearing plum tree.

If it's on your private property, take it down and start over!

"Oops....I still haven't got that hang of that trailer!"

One spray per year of Florel fruit eliminator should take care of it. Ask at your local full service independent garden center.

Maybe I'm missing something here. Why don't you home 'can' them, and eat them,...

There's an idea!

I bought a friend a bottle of Slivovicz back around 1990. He and I would drink a shot together every now and then. It definitely required a special occasion, and a driver. He and I have fallen out of touch; the Sliv is probably still collecting dust in the back of his liquor cabinet, with a few shots left on the bottom.

I'm not the canning type, but I'd love to try to make wine out of the plums. The problem is that they're too high up to pick, and by the time they fall they're usually pretty gross.

The neighbor on the other side has an apple tree whose fruit also goes to waste every year. I keep thinking about hard cider, but I never get off my duff and try to make any.

Of course, given my one winemaking experience, there's good reason to resist these urges. Now, that's a post for another day.

The making of beer, wine and spirits should be part of the "core curriculum" for when it all goes to hell.

...n'est ce pas?

With the neo-cons in the White House, it already has "gone to hell", rr.

I feel for you...but you could be in our backyard with a pear tree. You have to have guts to sit under the tree this time of year because the pears that drop are hard as rocks and hurt like... know.

What you probably don't know about your former "unforgettable neighber" is she owns waterfront property on Lake Washington in Seattle valued in the millions, and she once refused an offer to have her house painted for free by an elder-care charity because she "didn't want her property tax to go up".

And yes, she's still there.

Send your plum tree sightings to This is a group of Portland 20-somethings trying to catalog edible fruits and vegetables around the city.


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