Keeping Time on a Barrier Beach
by Christine Conley
Cool is the only word that accurately describes it. I felt cool. I realize that driving F250s isn’t a new thing to many Islanders, but driving through miles of uninterrupted barrier beach—well, we should all be so lucky. Working for The Trustees of Reservations one year, I often got to criss-cross Cape Poge in the truck. And it wasn’t just the ride that I loved—it was the chance to see all the amazing seasonal changes that happen on this very special piece of the Vineyard. It was here, among the beach grass and poison ivy, that I came to really appreciate the antics of a familiar friend Flamboyant, and a bit of an exhibitionist in spring. Blending with the crowd in summer. Plump and sweet in early fall, with an abrupt withdrawal into inactivity for the duration of the winter—you might mistake this description for a neighbor. But in truth, I’m describing a plant—the beach plum.
If plants had personalities, then this one would have multiple. Prunus maritima, found in many coastal habitats throughout the Island, is usually a low-lying shrub, but can also reach heights of eight feet. Valued for its ability to stabilize listless sand dunes, the beach plum is also comfortable in well-drained soil and can sometimes be found further inland than you might expect (consequently, it’s also cultivated and can be purchased at several Island nurseries). For all its versatility, the beach plum is one plant that most Islanders, and those that spend a lot of time here, can identify without much trouble by sight, but also by the flavor of its prized, cherry-sized fruit. Beginning in May, the beach plum’s naked branches explode with delicate white flowers so profuse they look like a blanket of freshly popped popcorn. Within a couple of weeks though, the flowers’ petals begin to fall, leaving behind the rest of the flower structure, and the plant takes on a pinkish hue. Then, just like that, the show is over. The 2- to 3-inch ovate leaves come out, and the beach plum becomes lost among rugosa rose and bayberries. But it’s not long before the real show begins—the arrival of the plums. First green, then red, then that distinctive blueish black.
Depending on the year, beach plums can be very generous fruit-bearing plants. Eaten straight from the plant, the plums can be tart or sweet according to ripeness, but when cooked (especially with sugar), they are divinely sweet and delicious. I am not divulging any guarded secrets though, for locals have been keen on these tiny fruit for a long time. Indigenous people from Maryland to Maine have eaten several species of native plum since long before European settlers arrived, and in the little over 400 years that the rest of us have been here, we’ve come to associate late summer with making beach plum jelly to put up for the winter. The window of opportunity for gathering beach plums is just a few short weeks. Families return to the same cache year after year, and you’ll see them with baskets and buckets in tow, scrambling over the dunes in search of the lushest bushes.
On Cape Poge, I came to see that there’s a rhythm to the natural world that feels intimately familiar and comfortable if you’re able to leave human clutter behind. For me, syncing to the rhythm didn’t take long, but it did take a willingness to surrender myself to the shifting sands, the hot sun, the salt spray and wind, the ceaseless action of the shore, and the migration of countless shore birds. Prunus maritima became a sort of natural time-keeper by which I learned to chart the progression of the seasons. Late August + September = golden grass + red poison ivy + beach plums = Fall has come knocking.