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New Jersey beach plums sure sign of summer's end

Associated Press Published: September 7, 2012

ISLAND BEACH STATE PARK, N.J. (AP) — This is the time of year when beach bums give way to beach plums.

When the large crowds vanish from the sands at the Jersey shore, that's the time this little-known crop has its moment in the sun.

Island Beach State Park is holding its beach plum festival on Sunday, celebrating the tangy fruit that grows wild along the length of the nearly 10-mile island. It can also be found elsewhere on the shore, including Cape May, and thrives along the coast from Maine to Maryland.

The festival, held annually the Sunday after Labor Day, features the plum's use in jelly, ice cream, syrup and even brandy, with recipe books and samples available.

Native Americans picked the plums for use in cooking, and early American settlers used them for jams and jelly.

"It's the end of the season and the start of a fall harvest," said Pat Vargo, vice president of Friends Of Island Beach State Park, which raises money for and helps maintain the popular park between the ocean and Barnegat Bay just south of Seaside Park. "People come from miles around just to pick these plums. They go crazy for this stuff."

Beach plums have endured the harsh weather and salty spray of the Atlantic coast for centuries. Their existence was noted by European explorers as far back as Giovanni da Verrazano in 1524.

Notable patches thrive on Cape Cod in Massachusetts; Plum Island, a beach near Newburyport, Mass.; Plum Island, a small island off New York's Long Island, where the U.S. Department of Agriculture has a research center; and a beach next to a wildlife management area in Delaware known as Prime Hook.

In New Jersey, the plums are most common on Island Beach State Park, as well as in and around Cape May. The shifting windblown sands actually help spread and expand the colonies. Their roots penetrate deep into the soil, and lower branches are often covered with sand. New roots often develop from those sand-covered branches.

The reddish-purple fruits don't grow much bigger than a thumbnail, and they're exceedingly tart; picking and eating one right off a bush may well put you off them forever.

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