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Plum's the Word...

Aug 2017

Clockwise from top-right (the big one!): cultivated Plum, Damson, Sloe, Bullace, Cherry Plum - or at least that's my best guess!Clockwise from top-right (the big one!): cultivated Plum, Damson, Sloe, Bullace, Cherry Plum - or at least that's my best guess!The writing of this post led me down a something of a rabbit hole of plum-related revelations – for starters, did you know that there are well over 400 species in the Prunus genus of tree, host to all manner of popular fruit including Cherry, Apricot, and Plums? And as you may already be suspecting by the Latin name, in all its italic splendour, digestion-friendly Prunes are indeed nothing more fanciful than dried plums!

Our focus today is the Prunus domestica branch of the family (like what I did there?) and the sweet Plum fruits that are ripe for the picking right now! Now I intended to write a foolproof guide to identifying all of the varieties of plum that you may come across on your foraging rambles around the UK, and that’s where I hit a snag. The thing is they’re pretty tricky to distinguish, and I don’t mean that I personally lack the appropriate identification skills to teach you since according to Liberty Hyde Bailey (a certain American botanist who co-founded the American Society for Horticultural Science no less) “the numerous forms grade into each other so imperceptibly and inextricably that the genus cannot be readily broken up into species.” Huh.

 

The good news is, it apparently doesn’t matter which variety of Prunus you’re looking at (well, with a few exceptions) so long as it’s sweet enough to eat, simply enjoy the fruit! Alas, part of me cannot accept such a non-answer let alone publish it, so I have attempted to come up with some sort of guide to differentiating between them, if not only to put my curious mind to rest than to give you the impetus to get outside and see what you likely have near you... See below for the list:

 

Image courtesy of freedigitalphotos.netImage courtesy of freedigitalphotos.netVictoria PlumPrunus domestica

The deep purple ‘Victoria’ is our large English variety of plum and the kind we’re probably most familiar with, keep an eye out for them in country farm-shops and roadside stalls. Saying that, the big Plums sold in any UK supermarket today, organic or otherwise, are most likely another large species from Spain or Africa usually with a red tinge to the skin colour.

 

Cherry PlumPrunus cerasifera.

 

The atropurpurea variety of Cherry Plum has attractive dark red coloured leaves as well as the fruit. No matter the colour they ripen to a delicious sweet flavour, from previous foraging forays I would label them as extremely edible!

 

Mirabelle PlumPrunus domestica subsp. syriaca

These little plums are very much the same as the Cherry Plums mentioned above though I believe are the more likely variety to remain yellow when ripe. According to my research, they may also finish up flecked with red without turning fully red. Like the others they are lovely and sweet and make great eating just as they are!

 

unripe oval Damsonsunripe oval DamsonsDamsonsPrunus domestica subsp. insititia

Small slightly oval-shaped wild plums around the same size as Sloes, somewhere in the region of ½ inch wide to 1 inch in length. Damsons are a bit too sour to really enjoy as they are, though are slightly sweeter than their lookalike, if it’s a bit too sour to eat but not an ordeal then you probably have some Damsons. They traditionally make an excellent jam with a lovely deep flavour.

 

Bullace – It’s hard to tell if the Bullace is merely another name for a Damson, my research suggests that they are a different variation in their own right though I can’t seem to pin down a sub species latin name like the others. Again, much like the Damson they look very similar to Sloes but are sweeter, larger, and apparently have no thorns on their branches unlike the Blackthorn (Sloe) so are kinder to the forager. The name seems to have been derived from variations of French and Old English names for Sloe and Damson – not confusing at all! ;) There is also a ‘white’ or golden variety with pale olive green skin, of course be sure it’s soft and ripe and not the hard green fruits of an under-ripe purple variety!

 

Sloes (Blackthorn)Prunus spinosa

Small, round, and bitter berries. Caution should be exercised amidst their thorny branches, especially around your eyes as you lean in, the spikes of some reaching an impressive 2 inches in length! Traditionally considered ripe after the first frosts of late Autumn to early Winter where they become slightly sweeter but are still inedible as they are. One nibble and you can enjoy the sensation of all of the moisture fleeing from your tongue, I doubt you’ll try a second bite... Because of their bitterness and astringent nature they’re mainly used for flavouring booze and sweetened with A LOT of sugar for jam. Check out my beautifully coloured Sloe Vodka>

 

Identifying a Plum tree:

At the peak of the plum season you barely need to bother looking at the hedgerow since the smell of the fermenting fruit already on the ground will soon give their position away, so follow your nose to the scent of cider/wine!

The bark of the tree is relatively smooth, so far as bark goes, with horizontal banding patterns. The trunks and branches tend to be much more uniformly circular compared to other trees, this pleasing aesthetic perhaps one of the reasons they’re so often planted in parks and gardens.

The leaves are tear-shaped with slight serrations and vary from a couple of inches to a hands width in length.

In spring they blossom with multi-layered flowers, around an inch in diameter and ranging from white to pink depending on the variety. Blossom is always a marker to me to keep an eye on that spot later in Summer since there’s going to be something worth having!

 

The Blackthorn and Damson varieties have similarly shaped leaves and blossom but tend to be much smaller than their ‘true Plum’ counterparts. The Blackthorn is of course best identified by it’s impressive thorns and is the first shrub to flower in Spring, the blooms cascading white confetti against the dark branches long before any leaves begin to show.

 

Like a Plum, but NOT a Plum!Like a Plum, but NOT a Plum!Stay safe – are there any lookalikes?

Foraging for fat fruits tends to be a safer exercise than hunting for smaller berries, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t a few sinister lookalikes lurking about in the very same parks. Plums tend to have a recognisable cleft on one side of the fruit, creating the ‘butt’ shape the kiddies (and us adults with a childish sense of humour!) like to smirk at. As a general rule, cherries and plums tend to dangle under the branches – so leave alone anything growing in a more upward fashion from obviously ‘bunched’ and coloured stalks, or that’s growing on a vine and not the actual tree supporting it. The most important rule to remember though is if you’re not sure, leave it alone and live to forage another day!

The only real problem plant I worry could be misidentified is a Laurel which does have a similar shaped leaf to the plum species, though much thicker with a waxy surface, and also go on to develop fat red-black berries albeit from a shared stalk and not individually from the branches like true Plums. The Cherry Laurel is in fact a relative of the Plum (Prunus laurocerasus) though bearing inedible bitter berries containing Hydrogen Cyanide, hinted at by the slight almond smell of it’s leaves (of which gardeners are advised to take care during pruning). Technically even Plum and Apricot stones, and in fact most fruits with a bitter note, contain similar levels of Cyanide but it’s better to be safe than sorry (unless you're being horribly tortured perhaps and you don't wish to divulge any secrets...)!

 

How do you know if they’re ripe Mirabelles or under-ripe Cherry plums? It’s easy really since they begin to ‘pick’ themselves, falling from the tree at the lightest shake from the breeze or an investigating forager’s arm. Of course you don’t want to shake them all to the ground or they’ll wind up bruised so I test them with the gentlest of squeezes before picking; if they have a little give then they’re usually ripe, too hard and they’ll still be sour, and too soft and they’re probably fermenting already...

 

A word of caution for harvesting fruits from the Blackthorn (Sloe) bush, they harbour some quite serious thorn spikes which will happily snag a reaching arm! The bark of the Blackthorn tends to provide a habitat on which many lichens like to grow - I believe it is this crumbly lichen debris that is responsible for the high rate of infection seen in Blackthorn scratches so be sure to give any wounds (they normally get you at least once!) a thorough clean when you get home to avoid further pain.

 

What should you do with them?

Here’s some suggestions to get you started with, I’ll try to add to this list as and when we discover more things to make with them:

 

Eat them as they are! Skip the basket and simply pick it, give it some close inspection, and then pop it straight into your mouth (careful of the stone though!).

Turn them into a fruit salad with some other summer fruits, and smother in tangy yogurt or sweet cream for a real treat.

Bake a cake – Chop the plum flesh away from the stones and bake them into a delicious fruit cake or flan, they make an interesting change to a strawberry Victoria sponge...

Don’t forget to make some jam to continue to enjoy when the season is over. This opens the door to all manner of jam sponges, tarts and cheesecakes... See our basic jam recipe here> along with some recipes involving the finished product!

I’ve read some Chutney recipes that have certainly peaked my interest so we’ll be having a go at a few of those this year, I’m sure it would go well with red meats and game.

Make booze! Think flavoured vodka, gin, or wine if you have the kit to pull of a good home-brew...

Anything else? I think I've exhausted everything I know, though I’m sure there are many more things you can make with wild plums as there are certainly enough varieties to keep it lively! Let us know what you tried below!

 

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Sarah is an artist and writer with a lifetime interest in camping and survival techniques.

Living the #vanlife since before it was a hashtag and touring on two wheels with her husband Ryan, they have a wealth of camping and motorcycling knowledge to share, and know a thing or two about packing light! read more


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