The whole truth about pluots versus plumcots.

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Aug. 19 2009 11:20 AM

Plu-What?

What's the difference between pluots and plumcots?

Illustration by Robert Neubecker. Click image to expand.

In late June, an editor at Bon Appétit appeared on The Early Show to talk about the pluot, a fruit available throughout the summer that she described as a plum-apricot hybrid consisting of "75 percent plum." She had three different fruits with her, which she identified as a Razmataz, a Mango Tango, and a Dinosaur Egg. "They're all pluots—just like you would have a McIntosh and a Cortland. They're varieties."

A few days later, a staff writer at the San Francisco Chronicle wrote: "The pluot's flavor characteristics are dominated by the plum, which accounts for about three-quarters of its parentage, but it has the mouthfeel of the apricot. Pluots are not to be confused with plumcots, another plum-apricot hybrid, developed by Luther Burbank, which usually are not as sweet as the pluot."

Then, in early July, a writer for NPR's "Kitchen Window" column elaborated on pluots vs. plumcots: "More than a century ago, horticulturalist Luther Burbank bred the plumcot with a 50-50 plum and apricot split. However, it was Floyd Zaiger who … bred the plumcot with a plum to create the pluot—three-fifths plum and two-fifths apricot—and coined the trademarked moniker. While the plumcot is a simple plum and apricot cross, pluots… are the result of intricate crossbreeding over several generations."

So what exactly is a pluot? Seventy-five percent plum and 25 percent apricot? Or 60 percent plum and 40 percent apricot? And how is a pluot different from a plumcot?

It's complicated.

Plant breeder Luther Burbank, who died in 1926, was indeed the first person to successfully cross plums with apricots in the late 19th century, releasing a handful of half-plum, half-apricot hybrids. He called these hybrids plumcots.

Floyd Zaiger and his breeding company, Zaiger Genetics, used Burbank's work as a foundation for much of their own experimentation with plum-apricot hybrids. In the 1980s, they released two 50-50 plumcot varieties, Plum Parfait and Flavorella. But plumcots suffered from a bad reputation among stone-fruit growers for being tough to grow, harvest, and ship, and while Plum Parfait and Flavorella were much tastier than some of the older plumcots, they were still temperamental.

Also, as a rule, the term "plumcot" referred only to half-plum, half-apricot hybrids. So as the Zaigers began backcrossing plumcots with plums to create more complex hybrids (with varying ratios of plum to apricot), they wanted to market them with a different name—one that wouldn't be tarnished by the notoriety of plumcots. Zaiger thus trademarked the name pluot (pronounced plew-ott) in 1990. (They renewed the trademark in 2007.)

As the Zaigers have continued to cross and backcross their increasingly complex hybrids, they've released dozens of pluots, each with a slightly different lineage. While it's surely true that one variety's family tree shakes out around 75 percent plum to 25 percent apricot (or even 60 percent and 40 percent), it's not correct to say that all pluots are three-quarters plum and one-quarter apricot (or three-fifths and two-fifths). Best just to say that pluots are mostly plum and leave it at that.

This misunderstanding over the pluot's makeup is most probably due to marketing. In the late 1990s, as pluots were moving from farmers' markets to supermarkets, globalism was expanding our options in the produce section. At the same time, plum growers were favoring larger and hardier varieties at the expense of flavor. As commercially grown plums became less tasty, Americans were eating fewer and fewer of them. In order to avoid the plum's bad name, and to command a higher price for Zaiger's new varieties, stone fruit growers and marketers decided it would be beneficial to distinguish the pluot as something entirely distinct from the plum.

When asked how a pluot was different from a plum, marketers skipped over talk of heredity and speciation and, for ease, stuck with the 75 percent-25 percent explanation, which, given the lineage of the first pluots, was appropriate at the time. Even as pluots have evolved, the ratio has stuck.

So, too, has the name. There are many plum-apricot hybrids on the market today, many of which were not developed by the Zaigers and therefore cannot be legally called "pluots." But as coverage of the hybrids has moved from insider publications like  Good Fruit Grower to those like the New York Times and Bon Appetit (two out of the three hybrids cited on Bon Appetit's Early Show appearance are not actually pluots), the word pluot is increasingly used to categorically refer to any tasty plum-apricot hybrid, making it at risk of becoming a genericized trademark like Q-Tip or Kleenex.

Breeders and growers outside the Zaiger family have made efforts to distinguish their hybrid plums from pluots by creating their own proprietary brands. The most famous of these is managed by a big grower-packer-shipper in central California called Kingsburg Orchards. In the mid-'90s, Kingsburg started growing a mottled Zaiger pluot called Dapple Dandy, which the company decided to rename Dinosaur Egg. The fruit was such a big hit that Kingsburg decided to label all mottled hybrid varieties as Dinosaur Eggs, Zaiger-bred or not. By simply marketing the fruits under a new name, Kingsburg got around the problem of labeling Zaiger-bred Dinosaur Eggs as pluots and non-Zaiger-bred Dinosaur Eggs as something else. Another big stone-fruit grower, Family Tree Farms, has led the charge to do away with the word pluot altogether and instead use Luther Burbank's old word, plumcot, to refer to any plum-apricot hybrid and not just the half-and-half crosses.

Of course, none of this renaming makes it any easier for us when we're out shopping for fruit. It's not uncommon to see pluots sold as plums and plumcots sold as pluots. In one store, I found the same Dinosaur Eggs sold as both plums and pluots, the only difference being that those in the pluot bin were more expensive. No wonder we can't keep it all straight.

Whenever I see pluots at my grocery store, I think about a crude joke California stone-fruit growers tell to illustrate the relative difficulty of growing and marketing peaches, nectarines, and plums. "A peach is like your mother: It's always there for you. A nectarine is like your girlfriend: It's something really dear and special. A plum is like the harlot down the street: It'll screw you every time." To this, I like to add my own silent postscript. A pluot is like Mary Magdalene: It's chronically misunderstood.

Chip Brantley is the author of The Perfect Fruit, a book about pluots.

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