2007-08-09 / Letters to the Editor

Why the beach plums are dying

When the state resurfaced the connecting road between Conanicut Island's main part and the Beavertail peninsula a few years ago, they made a grievous mistake.

This mistake was the planting of some two-dozen beach plum trees (prunus maritima) in the rocks at the extreme western edge of the Mackerel Cove beach. The plants' native habitat requires them to be planted in the sand. Prunus maritima is an exceptional species of a very, very specialized growth, a natural growth largely overlooked by the general populace. As a life member of the Nature Conservancy, I have known of the existence of this tree species for over 50 years. Due in part to experiments with them in the early 1950s, when I worked for the Jones Beach State various seasonal jobs.

The world renowned white sand beaches and adjacent areas of Point Lookout, Jones Beach itself, Tobay Beach, Fire Island National Park and the Hamptons beaches, including the very special "Sunken Forest," all owe their existence in large part to prunus maritima. This is a tree that has adapted itself in a most unique manner appearing as large, clumpy bushes in between growths of salt grasses, liverworts, beach tomatoes, poison ivy and bull rushes in various locations that hold the great sand dunes in place even in the most fearsome wind storms. Hence, the existence of many barrier beaches along the south coast of Long Island and the most northern parts of the New Jersey coastline. In many cases the clumpy bushes are part and parcel of the same root system. Some trees have been recorded over 50-feet in circumference. The beach plum tree, as it is popularly known in this area, grows where the water supply is brackish.

When I tried raising them inland in regular soil they did not thrive, but just sat there until transplanted back to their native habitat. The fruit or berries are about 1/2-inch in diameter, of a very dark red, tinged with purple when fully ripe, tasting of a cross between a plum and a cranberry. The berries are a good source of vitamin C that can be used in jams or jellies mixed with other seasonal fruit.

Some six or more years ago I had written two detailed letters to the governor of Rhode Island and the state's Department of Transportation about these trees, but received no real satisfactory reply. Since the severe nor'easter late last winter, the whole area of Mackerel Cove has been devastated and the last of these trees are already dead or dying. Such a sad commentary to some exceptional plants that could have made a much better solution for the drifting and shifting sands of the Mackerel Cove isthmus, but the lack of forethought bordering on idiocy seems to be all too prevalent in today's population.

W.G.Boll Jamestown

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