Plump plums and delicious damsons
While is it widely known that good crops of apples can be grown in the West of Ireland, there is very little appreciation of the great potential for plums and damsons. While fertile soil and shelter from prevailing winds are generally pre-requisites for good crops, these are not especially hard to achieve. For any gardener who already successfully grows other tree fruit, plums are well worth a try.
The European plum and its sister the gage are cultivated forms of Prunus domestica, a tree native to Southern Europe and Western Asia. Plums are typically red or purple, whereas gages are generally green, golden or yellow, small and very sweet. Plums and gages are mostly eaten fresh. However, some varieties are used mainly for cooking.
Although damsons are found growing wild in hedgerows throughout Ireland, they are not a native species but a naturalised form of Prunus insititia. It is thought that the damson reached Europe from Damascus -from which the name comes - in pre-Christian times. Damsons are smaller and generally less sweet than plums. They are also much hardier and disease-resistant, and will grow successfully on difficult or exposed sites. They are used more for cooking, though can be very tasty when fully ripe. Damsons are mostly self-fertile, though will also cross-pollinate with plums and gages.
In many parts of the world, notably Hungary and the Balkan countries, native plums are distilled into powerful spirits. Šljivovica (plum brandy) is the national drink of Serbia. The Hungarian equivalent is called palinka.
Plums were mentioned in the songs and writings of Confucius (551 BC – 479 BC). Although Pompey the Great is credited with introducing the cultivated plum to Rome in 65 BC, it is likely that wild plums had already been used by the peoples of southern Europe for many thousands of years previously. There are many hundreds of plum varieties worldwide.
Nowadays, commercial plum cultivars are grafted onto specialist rootstocks chosen for particular characteristics. The most commonly used rootstocks in Ireland are Pixy and St Julien 'A'. Pixy rootstock produces compact trees suitable for small urban gardens but needs well-drained, aerated soil to do well. St Julien 'A' rootstock produces vigorous trees more tolerant of poorer soils. Both rootstocks are used for plums, gages and damsons. Trees begin cropping within 2 to 5 years.
Many plums and damsons are self-fertile, meaning that a tree will set fruit without need for a pollinator of a compatible variety. However, even self-fertile varieties produce much heavier crops when cross-pollination takes place, so it makes sense to grow two or more compatible varieties. Not all varieties crop well every year - fruiting can sometimes be biennial or erratic with good crops occurring only every second or more years. In a favourable season however, crops can be so heavy that branches can sometimes break under the weight of the fruit. This year plum crops have mainly been good.
The most commonly grown plum is the variety Victoria, which although generally a reliable cropper is also very prone to canker and other diseases. In the West of Ireland, where high humidity and rainfall combined with low summer temperatures leads to increased risk of disease, Victoria is not recommended. Far better are disease-resistant varieties such as Marjorie's Seedling, Denniston's Gage, or Czar. Another reliable but sweet variety is Gordon Castle, from Scotland. Of the really exquisitely tasty plums that might only crop in particularly good years, Coe's Golden Drop would be hard to beat. The earliest plums ripen in August while the later varieties such as Marjorie's Seedling are ready towards the end of September.
The commercial varieties of damson offer a diversity of flavour and cropping period not usually found in the wild hedgerow damson trees. Merryweather, a large, late September or early October damson, is the most well known. Farleigh and Shropshire Prune are smaller, tastier and earlier, and may ripen better in a poor year. Earlier still and tastiest of all are Blue Violet and Delma. Wild damsons can be found growing in many parts of County Mayo.
Cultivated varieties of plum and damson can generally be obtained both container-grown and bare-rooted. The latter can only be planted out during the dormant season (November to April but avoiding times when the ground is frozen or water-logged) while container-grown trees can be planted out all year round. The autumn is the best time of year to be considering additions to the fruit garden, enthusiastically browsing through nursery catalogues, and preparing the ground for the new arrivals. Anyone with existing plum or damson trees that are not producing crops should consider issues like disease, soil quality, shelter, or pollination, and perhaps seek expert advice on possible remedies.
Fruit and Nut (www.fruitandnut.ie) supply a large range of container-grown and bare-rooted apple, plum, damson and nut trees suitable for the West of Ireland. They will undertake site assessments and/or provide free advice over the phone or by email. Phone 087 6714075, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Next week Blueberries without the blues
Andy Wilson is a founding member of the Westport Sustainability Group, which is involved in many food-growing initiatives in the Westport area, including the Railway Walk Linear Orchard project. He can be contacted at 087 6714075 or email@example.com.