Plum thickets are an important part of Kansas habitat

An avid hunter, birder, herpetologist and botanist, Ken Brunson knows what makes good wildlife habitat.

He's a huge fan of sandhill plums.

"I'd have to say that plum thickets are the most important habitat found in western Kansas," said Brunson, Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks non-game biologist. "It's hard to think of a species of wildlife that doesn't utilize it."

Brunson said mammals from mice to mule deer bucks relish the fruit and snack on wild plum leaves in the summer, and may gnaw on plum bark and tips in the winter.

It's an important protective cover for most prairie species year-round.

"They're very important for lesser prairie chickens," said Jim Pitman, Wildlife and Parks small game program coordinator. "It's a lot of shade in the summer. Heat's a big deal for getting chicks to survive. It's a great place for hens to take their broods."

Brunson said many songbirds that winter in Kansas rely heavily on the gnarled tops of plum thickets for protection from the wind and cold.

Bobwhite quail, a species suffering from declining habitat in much of Kansas, rely on plum thickets for protection from the elements and a variety of predators.

"In all of our quail programs we recommend people plant plums," Pitman said. "They're often American plums but they're the same basic structure as sandhill plums."

And Brunson can attest to the quality of habitat plum thickets provide to some insects.

"My worst case of chiggers was associated with a plum thicket out by Webster Reservoir," said Brunson, an admitted addict to sandhill plum jelly. "That was bad, really bad."

Picking facts — Some key things to know about the legalities of plum-picking:

* It is legal to pick wild sandhill plums on any lands owned or managed for wildlife by the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks.

Regular entry permits are needed to access state parks.

* It is legal to gather plums from within most road ditches in rural Kansas.

"As long as they're complying with laws about parking on roadways and not crossing on to private property it should be legal," said Capt. Wayne Baughman, Reno County Sheriff's Department. "They have to get permission before crossing a fence on to any private property. We suggest they have written permission."

* It is illegal to gather sandhill plums or any other sort of plant from the Quivira National Wildlife Refuge.

Bounce in your step — Raised deep in the Flint Hills, Jane Laman's been picking wild plums for most of her 79 years.

While she once focused on making jelly, now she mostly makes Plum Bounce.

It's billed as a sweet sauce for ice cream, but Laman and many friends enjoy sipping the brandy-like brew that carries a significant kick.

It's equal parts of sugar, plums and vodka. Made in a jar with a tight lid, the bounce is lightly shaken every few days over a five-week period to help the sugar dissolve.

Laman got the recipe from a Christmas present cookbook while in high school in the mid-1940s.

"I remember that year I got three things — new spurs, a shotgun and that cookbook," Laman said. "When I was young I used the spurs and shotgun the most. Now I use that old cookbook. It's held together with rubber bands."