Native Fruit

Once common on New York’s shores—anchoring dunes and providing fruit—the beach plum’s a little scarce these days. But it is a part of our heritage, and Erik Baard, a forager, forgotten food advocate, kayaker and recently voted the “Greenest New Yorker” by the state tourism agency ILOVENY, wants kids to know about it: to see it growing, be able to pick the fruit, use them to make jam and plant the pits to grow seedlings.

On a late-August afternoon, the Queens resident brought 19 children from Hour Children, a charity, to Briermere Farm in Riverhead to go picking.

Many of these kids had never seen a farm, let alone a beach- plum bush. The charity takes care of children whose mothers are incarcerated, housing them, and aiding the families’ transition to independent living.

Baard, whose work includes recently planting an orchard of Newtown Pippen apple trees on Randalls Island, does this as a volunteer. The trip to the East End also included kayaking in Southold. And thus he was able to combine his two passions, as he has established free kayaking in Long Island City, where Hour Children is based, and has started a program to grow apple trees from seedlings to give to schools and community gardens. The same is now in the cards for beach plums.

During their kayaking trip, the children saw the bushes in their natural habitat. At Briermere, they saw propagated plants that farm owner Clark McCombe said his family put in 12 years ago, as part of a collaboration with Cornell Cooperative Exten- sion, which is trying to restore the plant’s range in the wild and on farms. There are nearly two acres planted on a south-facing slope where the kids were let loose.

Some picked indiscriminately—ripe, rotten, who cares?—in order to be the first to fill their quart. Others painstakingly select-ed the purplest of the bunch, dropping them carefully into their collection. Quite a few were willing to taste them, and some threw them at each other.

Beach plums are notoriously fickle, said McCombe, producing yields that vary from year to year. He has varieties that are ready to pick when they’re yellow, and those that are best when the color of a ripe wine grape. But because beach plums are native, or so Mc- Combe guesses, they are not as plagued by birds as grapevines are.

Back at the farm stand, Baard was happy with the outing, and the food experiences the students had garnered. Each child got a cookie and a slushie and packed up their plums to take back to Queens. Hopefully more will make it into a jar than end up rolling around on the floor of the bus.