Coastal beach plums make for toothsome jelly
June Rose Futcher parked in front of a patch of thickly shrubbed dunes in front of the Breakwater House condominiums on Lewes Beach. A bright sunny October day, it seemed like the whole world was smiling.
With a step ladder in one hand, a woven basket in the other, and a mind full of purpose, June Rose waded into a mass of beach plum shrubs and went to work.
This is the time of year that hunters and gatherers love. Harvest season. Monarch butterflies making their way south just above ground level and high overhead, with cold fronts at their backs, migratory waterfowl winging their way ahead of winter. Out at Mark's Meats on the Hollyville Road, butchers are reporting extra thick hair on deer hides. A sign of a heavier than usual winter ahead? We will see. On the edges of woods, the flavor of smashed persimmons rotting on the ground and roasting in the sun fills the air. Deer feeding on persimmons and acorns make for tasty venison.
Back in the dunes, June Rose worked steadily to fill her basket. Beach plums – prunus maritima – festoon the stiff branches. Each is the color and size of a dull, purple marble. Inside the tannined skins, sweet juice and wild pulp surround pits that take up most of the space. Still, there is enough of the grape-colored nectar in these gifts from God to create a wonderful jelly.
June Rose picks all along Lewes Beach. There are plenty of other thick stands of beach plums northward toward Milford and in the coastal dunes of Cape Henlopen, Delaware Seashore and Fenwick Island state parks. “They thrive in the dunes from coastal Delaware all the way up into the Canadian Maritimes,” said June Rose. “Cornell University has actually done research on cultivating these hardy little plums.”
June Rose and her mother, also June Rose, have made a fall ritual of beach plum jelly making for the past several years. It's a cottage industry for them. Using the magical alchemy that includes sugar, pectin and the strained juices of beach plums, the two JRs jar up cases of jelly and sell it as a seasonal specialty through local outlets like Lloyd's Market and Lewes Bake Shoppe. The Buttery restaurant also uses the Futchers' beach plum jelly.
Picking and talking at the same time, June Rose said she is the fourth generation of Futchers to make the jelly. “Ours is a full-bodied jelly with lots of flavor,” she said. “A lot of work is involved but we believe in the end it's worth it.”
They sell their homemade jelly for $9 per jar. It sounds like a lot of money, but for an intensely flavored specialty item that can sweeten lots of biscuits, pieces of toast or even a slice of roasted duck, beach plum jelly makes for an awesome gift or treat for yourself.