Plums are a delicious treat whether added to desserts or eaten fresh off the branch, and there are countless varieties of plum trees to enjoy growing in your backyard.
A particular favorite is the oddly shaped Italian or European plum loved for its sweeter taste.
What is an Italian plum tree? Italian plum trees are a cold-hardy European freestone variety of plum, producing high yields of oblong-shaped drupes with a higher sugar content compared to the common American variety (Prunus americana). Italian plum trees are self-fertile and have a later ripening season than most plum trees.
The added sweetness of this freestone plum makes it a joy to prepare and use in a range of dishes, and these self-pollinating trees won’t require a whole orchard to help them produce (as long as they’re given the best care and growing conditions!).
Here’s how to recognize, plant, and care for the Italian plum tree plus FAQs.
Italian Plum Trees – Identification & Facts
Italian plum trees (Prunus domestica ‘Italian Prune’) are also referred to as the Fellenberg European plum after the Swiss agronomist P. E. von Fellenberg imported the fruit to Germany from Lombardy, Italy in 1800.
Italian Plum Tree Appearance & Size
The Italian plum tree has a drooping, spreading canopy that is thick with elliptical medium- to dark-green leaves with toothed edges.
Trees typically reach a mature height and spread of 18 to 20 feet and require 20 feet of spacing between trees for their considerable spread.
Italian Plum Fruit Appearance & Taste
Italian plum fruit is commonly oblong or egg-shaped with smooth, deep-purple skin, covered in cloudy patches of powder blue.
Each drupe is approximately 2-3 inches in diameter, and the yellow-green flesh is rich and highly sweet, though less juicy than regular commercial plums, with a pleasantly tart kick.
Ideal Grow Zones for Italian Plum Trees
Italian plum trees are native to a dry coastal region of the Mediterranean, so these tend to grow best in temperate areas of the western US – specifically in USDA Grow Zones 4-9.
Min & Max Temperatures Italian Plum Trees Can Tolerate
These vigorous trees are very cold tolerant, withstanding a minimum temperature of -30ºF, and they will thrive in regions that can provide summer temperatures between 68ºF and 86ºF to ensure the fruit matures.
It’s important to note that Italian plum trees also require between 800 and 1,000 chill hours throughout winter (the accumulated hours when temps stay below 45ºF).
This ensures their buds stay dormant before “waking” to open up in spring temperatures. You can calculate the chill hours in your region here.
When Is the Best Time of Year To Plant an Italian Plum Tree?
The ideal time to plant an Italian plum tree is in early spring or alternatively in fall if the soil is moist and conditions are mild.
To avoid damage to your growing plum tree, be sure to plant it in a sheltered, warm site (i.e. avoiding low-lying areas where frost can settle).
When Do Italian Plum Trees Flower?
Italian plum trees normally flower around late spring, sending out small and mildly fragrant five-petaled white blossoms.
Why Is There No Fruit on My Italian Plum Tree?
Bear in mind that an Italian plum tree can take up to 6 years after planting to bear fruit, and this may take longer depending on your climate.
If your plum tree hasn’t been subjected to the required chill hours, then fruit production is limited due to an irregular or late blooming period.
If there is still no fruit appearing on your well-cared-for, healthy Italian plum tree, expert growers at Toronto Master Gardeners advise planting a different European plum tree variety nearby to encourage fruit and “waiting another year or two to see if fruit sets.”
Thorough yearly pruning is also helpful to ensure your tree isn’t focusing all its energy on leaf production.
Do Italian Plum Trees Require a Pollinator?
No, Italian plum trees are self-fertile and so won’t require another plum tree variety to produce fruit. However, planting a plum tree partner will certainly increase your yield.
Please note that your tree’s pollination partner can only be another European plum tree variety as they will not cross-pollinate with Japanese (Prunus salicina) or American varieties (Prunus americana) due to different flowering periods.
Differences Between Regular and Italian Plum Trees
Regular American or “wild” plum trees produce more or less globular-shaped fruit that develops a shiny, deep reddish-purple skin when ripe.
The fruit or “drupes” produced are also smaller than Italian plum trees and have thicker, bitter-tasting skin but juicier flesh than their European counterparts.
Is a ‘Stanley’ Plum and an Italian Plum the Same Thing?
The ‘Stanley’ prune plum is a cultivar of the Italian plum tree and was originally developed in Geneva in 1926. Stanley plum trees produce dark blue fruit with a mostly oblong shape and require at least 700 chill hours to break dormancy in spring.
Popular Italian Plum Tree Varieties
- ‘Green Gage’ – Bright to chartreuse-green skin, globular apple-like shape, amber-colored flesh.
- ‘Susine Balle d’Ase’ – Native to Pignone, Italy; small, violet-colored fruit; very sweet & juicy.
- ‘Susina di Dro’ – Native to Trento province, Italy; low-sugar content; oblong, cloudy purple fruit.
- ‘Early Italian’ – Dark purple skin, ripens approx 10-15 days ahead of Italian plums.
- ‘Damson’ – British cultivar, clingstone variety (flesh sticks to the stone), indigo/near-black fruit color.
Best Places To Buy Italian Plum Trees Online
- Fast Growing Trees: Trees available in sizes 4-5 and 5-6 ft., delivered within 1-2 days, free shipping on orders over $125
- Nature Hills Nursery: Ships bare-root and potted trees; 1,2, and 3 ft. sizes, ships within 7-10 days
- Raintree Nursery: Ships 4-5-ft. semi-dwarf trees for under $60, potted trees only
Common Diseases of Italian Plum Trees
Frost, pest damage, and periods of heavy rainfall can all contribute to bacterial and fungal diseases on Italian plum trees. Some of the most common include:
Bacterial Canker – Sour-smelling, oozing sores on branches and purplish-back spots on leaves. Apply a broad spectrum preventive fungicide, and isolate the affected tree from other plants/trees.
Crown Gall – Burls and knots on the trunk or near roots. Trees can still produce fruit but will become stunted in the long term without treatment.
Black Knot – Swollen black masses on branches. Affected branches must be pruned in winter. Apply copper fungicide (this one is very easy to apply) to prevent the appearance and spread of future fungal spores.
How To Plant an Italian Plum Tree
1. Choose a suitable planting site (avoiding pooling water and low-lying frost pockets), and dig a hole a little wider and deeper than the tree’s root ball.
2. Examine the roots for any damage during transit and prune any damaged/broken roots using sterile, heavy-duty pruning shears.
3. Place the root ball in the prepared hole, and backfill with soil before watering the area thoroughly to help the roots settle.
4. Add a 1-2 inch layer of mulch around the surrounding soil to conserve moisture (avoiding touching the trunk), and water once more.
Italian Plum Tree Care
Once you’ve planted your Italian plum tree, be sure to give it the best care and growing conditions possible to encourage plenty of blooms and an amazing set of fruit!
Italian plum trees will do best in fine-textured loamy or sandy soil types. Avoid heavy compacting clay-like soils as plum trees need excellent drainage.
Water & Sunlight Needs
Check the top 3 inches of the soil surrounding the tree roots, and if it’s dry, it’ll need a thorough soak. Otherwise, your Italian plum tree shouldn’t need watering unless you live in a super dry climate.
Ensure the tree gets at least 6 hours of direct sunlight too.
Fertilizer Type & Schedule
Fertilizer won’t be necessary for the first 2-3 years. Once the tree bears fruit, you can use a balanced fertilizer in early spring or add a top dressing of organic mulch to the soil.
Prune any non-fruiting or deformed/ damaged branches annually in winter, prioritizing the center of the tree to improve air circulation and allow sunlight in.
When Can You Harvest Italian Plums?
Italian plum trees begin bearing fruit after around 3-6 years, and they are typically ready for harvest around late August or early September if planted in spring, taking around 180-200 days to ripen.
You’ll know your Italian plum fruit is ripe for the picking when the skin feels softer to the touch, has a more powdery appearance, and pulls off the tree with a gentle twist.
To sum up, Italian plum trees, also known as the European plum tree, produce a generous harvest of oddly elongated fruit with a slightly more sugary taste than the domestic plums you’re accustomed to, making them a great addition to sweet dishes or as an immediate snacking fruit.
These trees are relatively straightforward to care for too, provided you take their ideal Grow Zone and required “chill hours” into consideration as this will determine how healthy the blossoms and subsequent fruit production will be. Happy plum tree planting!