Mastodons and Wild Plum Thickets

I found this thicket of wild Chickasaw plums in south Richmond County, Georgia.  The thicket covers at least 2 acres.

Wild plum thickets abound over much of North America.  They’re a pioneer species, growing extensively in old overgrown fields before other trees eventually shade and thereby outcompete them.  The lifespan of a plum tree seldom exceeds 20 years anyway, which is the length of time a plum thicket lasts during its stage of forest succession.  Plum thickets are a common site along roadsides in Georgia and other southeastern states.  For various reasons highway crews often clear corridors on the sides of roadways, and plums thrive in the sunny locations when overstory trees ares stripped or removed.  Today, birds and small mammals such as oppossums, raccoons, and gray foxes eat the fruit and spread the seeds in their feces.  American Indians also extensively planted plums around their settlements.  The variety of plum in the above photograph is known as the Chickasaw plum (Prunus angustifolia), and it is believed to have been originally cultivated by the Chickasaw Indians.  They spread the variety east from their early settlements.

There are 3 species of wild plums that range into Georgia, including south Richmond County where I found the plum thicket pictured above.  I used photographs from google images to compare and distinguish between the 3 and determined that the ones I found were probably Chickasaw plums, though I’m not a trained botanist, so I don’t know for sure.  The other 2 species are the American plum (Prunus americana) and the hog plum (Prunus umbellata).  I harvested a pint of the Chickasaw plums (I could’ve collected bushels.)  They are as sweet and  tasty as the best quality cultivated plums one can buy at a supermarket.  The only drawback is the small size–they’re a little smaller than cultivated cherries and the fruit to pit ratio is even smaller.

Picture of mastodons from google images.

Photo of Mastodon dung recovered from the Aucilla River.

Scientists examining 14,000 year old mastodon dung from the Aucilla River in north Florida found plum pits.  Chemical tests of fossil mastodon bones found at the site determined that mastodons wandered back and forth from north Florida to central Georgia.  These wide-ranging behemoths spread fruit and seeds of many plant species far and wide.  Most of the seeds that went through their alimentary tracts were not only still viable, but they had the added bonus of being encased in fertilizer when excreted.  (See also my blog entry “Paw Paw: Favored Fruit of the Mastodon” which I think is either in my May 2010 or April 2010 archives.)

The dynamic landscape of the Pleistocene included natural environments in all stages of forest succession.  Disturbances and atmospheric conditions such as fires, storms, megafauna foraging, insect damage, disease, floods, beaver activities, drought, and low CO2 levels contributed to frequent formation of meadows, prairies, and savannahs–all suitable environments for plum thickets.  With mastodons (and giant ground sloths) facilitating their spread, plum thickets must have been just as common then as now, if not more so.

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This is an addendum to my last week’s rant about the environmental destruction that white slave-owners inflicted upon Georgia in the early 19th century.  My favorite poem is the lyrics to the rock group, Rush’s song “The Trees.”  Rush is a fantastic group, if you can get past the high voice of the lead singer.  It’s amazing that just 3 people can put out the amount of sound they do.  Anyway, here are the lyrics.

“The Trees” by Rush.

There is unrest in the forest

There is trouble with the trees

For the maples want more sunlight

and the oaks ignore their pleas

The trouble with the maples

(and they’re quite convinced they’re right)

They say the oaks are just too high

and they take up all the light

But the oaks can’t help their feeling

if they like the way they’re made

and they wonder why the maples can’t be happy in their shade

There is trouble in the forest

and the creatures all have fled

as the maples scream “oppression!”

and the oaks just shake their heads

So the maples formed a union

and demanded equal rights

“The oaks are just to greedy; we will make them give us light”

Now there’s no more oak suppression

for they passed a noble law

and the trees are kept all equal by hatchet, axe, and saw

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8 Responses to “Mastodons and Wild Plum Thickets”

  1. James Robert Smith Says:

    Really a nice essay! I always wonder about the small details of the ecosystems that were destroyed as Homo sapiens made its way across North America, exterminating the megafauna.

  2. katherineconcretejungle Says:

    Very interesting! Could I email you to learn a little bit more about this wild plum orchard?

  3. eugene spann Says:

    want plums

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