Fruit trees complement a vegetable garden beautifully. They add height to your garden and provide visual interest year round. In spring, the buds of fruit trees emerge before many of your vegetable plants have germinated. Sweet blossoms attract pollinators to your garden and draw you outside to enjoy their luxurious scent. In summer’s heat, both humans and plants can appreciate the shade provided by fruit trees.
Planting a fruit tree in your yard is a bigger undertaking than planting a row of radishes or lettuce. But it is well worth the investment if you want to have homegrown fruit. If you are considering fruit trees for your garden, why not choose a fruit that you don’t see in the grocery store every day? Horticulturist Chuck Ingels recommends plum trees and pluots for home growers. Since plums are fairly easy to find, it might be fun to try growing a pluot tree.
What is a Pluot?
A pluot is an apricot plum hybrid. It is generally described as being 75% plum and 25% apricot, though there are now dozens of different pluot varieties. Each of these fruit trees will produce pluots with their own unique genetic makeup. Some have a little more apricot than others, but all tend more heavily towards the plum. Pluots have smooth skin and look very much like plums. They are sweeter than plums, though, and the flesh is more grainy than the flesh of a plum.
The aprium is a related apricot plum hybrid. This stone fruit has more of the apricot characteristics than a pluot does. An aprium has the fuzzy skin and freestone of an apricot. Most varieties also have the colouring of an apricot. The taste is reported to be like an apricot, but with a hint of plum. I have yet to spot an aprium at the grocery store or farmer’s market, so I haven’t tasted this particular hybrid fruit yet. If you have, I’d love to hear what you think of the taste!
Origins of the Apricot Plum Hybrid
Apricots and plums are, genetically speaking, first cousins. They are both stone fruits in the genus Prunus. At one time, scientists thought these fruits were too different to be crossbred. In the late 19th century, an American horticulturist named Luther Burbank proved them wrong.
Burbank hoped that by crossing plums with apricots he could select for the best characteristics of both fruit trees. Apricots are particularly susceptible to spring frost, but plum trees blossom a bit later. So if he could produce a hybrid fruit tree that flowered later in the spring, he would end up with a hardier fruit.
For its part, the plum bruises easily. Burbank wanted to create a hybrid fruit with the protective fuzz of the apricot. He hoped it would help protect the apricot plum hybrid from bruising and make it easier to transport.
Burbank’s first apricot plum hybrids were 50% plum and 50% apricot. He called them plumcots. Burbank exhibited some of the plumcots from his fruits trees at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, in 1901.
The Science Behind Hybrid Fruit Trees
Burbank’s initial plumcots were created by cross-pollination. In the 80s, biologist Floyd Zaiger picked up Burbank’s research into interspecific plums. Using the same cross-pollination techniques, he created and released two 50%-50% plumcot varieties. Growers were hesitant to try them at the time, because plumcots had a reputation for being difficult to grow and ship.
Zaiger coined the name pluot in an attempt to move beyond the reputation of the older plumcots. He trademarked the name in 1990. Technically, only pluots developed by Zaiger should be called pluots. But today some growers and distributors are using the word “pluot” more generically.
You may find some non-Zaiger fruit trees sold as pluots. And sometimes grocers will sell all interspecific plums as plumcots, regardless of whether they come from Zaiger’s patented strains or not. Don’t let the different names confuse you: both plumcots and pluots are apricot plum hybrids.
Hybrid Genetics and the Pluot Tree
Pluots and apriums grow on fruit trees that have some characteristics of both plum trees and apricot trees. Unlike the so-called fruit salad tree or five fruit tree, they are real hybrid fruits. Each pluot and each aprium is distinct from the parents fruits. This isn’t a case of apricots on one branch of a tree and plums on another.
Plumcots and pluots are “interspecific plums,” meaning they are plum-like fruits that are the result of a cross between two species of fruit trees. They are also considered complex hybrids because they are the result of several generations of cross-breeding. Oranges are another example of a complex hybrid fruit. I’ll bet you never realized that!
Is the Pluot a GMO?
Pluots may sound like weird fruit hybrids, but breeders grow them pretty much like any other fruit. Remember that Burbank developed the first plumcots decades before the first GMO foods. At that time, conventional breeding methods were the only way to develop new vegetables or fruit.
I know that Zaiger’s company, Zaiger Genetics, sounds like a biotech company. And that trademarking names and patenting fruit trees sounds like something Monsanto would do. But neither pluots nor plumcots are not transgenic food. Zaiger’s company uses traditional breeding methods to develop their new fruit trees.
Interspecific plums are the result of selective breeding. Breeders cross-pollinate fruit trees to produce the kind of fruits they are hoping to develop for market. Once that happens, they can graft cuttings from those trees onto rootstocks that are suited to the growing environment. Why grafting? Because most fruits, including apples, don’t grow true to type.
If you plant the seeds from a particularly tasty apple, the resulting fruit trees will grow apples. They just probably won’t be as tasty as the apple you were hoping to reproduce. So it is with plumcots and pluots. Once breeders produce fruit trees that yield the kind of fruit they were looking for, they graft cuttings from those trees onto strong rootstocks. Voila! New fruit trees, without planting seeds!
Hybridization vs GMO
The difference between GMOs and hybrid foods is that breeders use physical methods to develop hybrids. Biotech companies use direct genetic modification instead of selective breeding. Yes, humans are manipulating the genetics of the fruit trees in both cases. But breeders do it by growing fruit trees in a controlled environment and then choosing which trees should be used to pollinate others. They mimic nature’s own processes.
With genetically modified organisms (GMOs) the manipulation happens in a lab under a microscope. It may involve switching off a specific gene. Or it may mean transferring genetic material from one species to another. Either way, modern biotech uses completely different means than the selective breeding methods used to develop hybrid fruit trees like the plumcot.
As pluots and plumcots are still not terribly well-known, it isn’t easy to find nutritional information on this fruit. The USDA does have nutritional data for certain specific pluots, such as the Dinosaur Egg pluot. According to this data, 100 g of Dinosaur Egg pluots supply 46 calories. That’s the same as a plum. They contain just under 10 g of sugars, including 1.4 g of dietary fibre. Again, this is the same as a plum.
The sugars in pluots are natural fructose and dietitians consider them healthy sugars. The fibre in the pluots helps to slow down the absorption of the sugar, which apparently gives pluots both a low glycemic index and glycemic load.
Pluots have a modest potassium content and supply just under 13% of your daily vitamin C requirement. They contain no sodium and almost no fat. They do, however, supply a small amount of protein and plenty of water.
Where to Buy Pluots
You might think because pluots and plumcots aren’t well-known, that they’d be difficult to find. But if you’re thinking about growing fruit trees in your yard, it shouldn’t be too hard to find a nursery that sells pluot or plumcot trees. If you can’t find a local nursery that carries them or can order them for you, you can definitely find pluot fruit trees for sale online.
Pluots need a winter chill to ensure they’ll set fruit, so they grow best in places where the winters are cold but there is no danger of late spring frost. When you buy your plumcot tree, buy two fruit trees. One should be the variety you want to grow. The other is your “pollenizer,” a compatible plumcot or plum tree. Ask the nursery to recommend varieties that will grow well together, and talk to them about where to plant fruit trees in your yard.
Want to Try Pluots Before You Buy a Fruit Tree?
As for the fruit itself, pluots and plumcots are beginning to show up at farmers markets. You may also be able to find them in grocery stores, even in small rural towns like mine. We found what I think were Dapple Dandy pluots here a few years ago. (They were labelled as plumcots, but they matched the description of Zaiger’s patented pluot variety fairly closely.)
Apparently, there are more plumcots and pluots in the marketplace than we would expect. That’s partly because grocery stores know that consumers are a bit shy of trying new foods. People worry about unknowingly eating GMOs, and they tend to stick to foods they know. This has led to some grocers selling pluots and plumcots as plums.
You May Be Eating Pluots Without Realizing It
“Pluots now make up a majority of the plum market,” said NPR’s Pat Tanumihardja in a 2009 report. So the growers favour these apricot plum hybrid fruit trees – but grocers don’t always tell consumers the fruit they’re buying is a hybrid. In Canada, labelling regulations say that vendors should label a fruit using its usual name. Since pluots are interspecific plums, it’s legal to label them as plums.
If you want to taste pluots before buying your fruit trees, you may have to do a bit of sleuthing. It’s fairly safe to say that if you find fruit labelled as a specific variety of pluot, that’s probably what it is. But you may already be eating plumcots without realizing it. And in some grocery stores, you may even find that the same fruit is being sold as “plums” for one price and as “pluots” for a higher price. Grocers often do the same thing with sweet potatoes, selling the ones they label as “yams” at a higher price. So be alert when you shop!
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Original content © 2018 Kyla Matton Osborne, aka #RubyWriter
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