A plum assignment: Sandhill plum crop is one of the best in years

Wild sandhill plums await to be eaten by humans or wildlife.
Wild sandhill plums await to be eaten by humans or wildlife. The Wichita Eagle

RENO COUNTY — For more than 100 years, Bud Miller's family has farmed crops of wheat, soybeans, corn and milo from the land.

Monday morning, three generations of Millers worked together to harvest a crop simply furnished by Mother Nature.

"I was probably 14 the first time I picked plums," said Miller, 83, as he plucked nickel-sized red fruit. "The next year three of us picked 30 bushels. That was a lot of plums."

Word across most of rural central and western Kansas is that this year's crop of wild sandhill plums is one of the best in years.

From big city parks to the recesses of remote pastures, jungle-like thickets often hang heavy with sweet fruit that's been cherished for centuries.

Spencer Tomb, a Kansas State botany professor, rated wild plums as "the best of Kansas' native fruit." Historical records show Native Americans and early pioneers relied heavily on wild plums.

Sandhill plums, or a similar sub-species of the fruit, are found in about all parts of Kansas. They come in sizes ranging from dimes to quarters. Ripe plum colors range from pale yellow to dark red.

And different thickets seem to ripen at different times, meaning plum picking can last most of the summer.

"That's one of the interesting things is that while we have some ripening right now, some will just be ripening in September," Tomb said. "I've gone out many times to hunt doves and come home with a cooler of plums up in the Manhattan area."

Late July has long been prime picking for the Millers. While many thickets that had produced bumper crops in the past were fruitless, Todd Miller knew of a cluster where ripe fruit waited as thick as ornaments on a well-decorated Christmas tree.

To beat the heat, he, his parents Bud and Betty, and children Tye and Tasha left home shortly after breakfast.

A backroad of soft sand led them into prime plum country of gently rolling sandhills.

Tasha Miller, 18, said she now picks sandhill plums because she enjoys eating them fresh or turned into jelly.

Several years ago, she and her brother offered their gatherings for sale, first by posted signs and then on the radio.

"That's when about everybody started doing it," Tye Miller said. "That's OK, it was a lot of work."

For their grandfather, wild plums once provided much-needed work.

Bud Miller recalled the long-ago time when he and two friends sold plums in northwest Kansas.

"We sold them for $3 a bushel," he said. "It was big deal because there just weren't any jobs."

Monday's picking wasn't work-only for the Millers. Mouths worked as fast as fingers as the three generations talked of everything from this summer's plum crop to past patches, farming, hunting and fishing.

Plums playfully flew from sibling to sibling. Farm dogs Zoey and Guapo snatched up tossed ripe plums like they were pet biscuits.

In about an hour, the five Millers had totalled about four gallons of plums.

While it was fun, the picking had its challenges.

Recent rain and heat had split the skin on many plums. Todd Miller picked many yellowish plums, knowing they could be ripened in a paper sack at home.

And plum thickets are some of the tightest, thorniest cover in Kansas.

Toward the end of the morning, Betty Miller stood deep in a thicket, trying in vain to grab a cluster of brilliant fruit a few inches out of reach.

"It always seems the best plums are 'over there' where you just can't get to," said the Miller's matriarch.

So wild plum picking has probably gone for the family for more than 100 years.

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