Smaller and sharper than plums, damsons may not have a lot of charisma but they come alive when they arrive in the kitchen from the garden
Damsons are not a commonly grown fruit, but they were once. They have been grown in England for hundreds of years, and vast orchards existed right up until the Second World war but apparently tastes change.
Thankfully there are signs of a comeback for this very particular fruit.
Damsons are as rich and intense a fruit as you could hope to find and it is no wonder that fame comes with its association with luscious jams.
All damsons are self-fertile, so you only need to grow the one tree, but traditional growers believed their trees were particularly prolific because of their pollination by wild bullace and sloe, and so you may get better crops if you plant a couple of varieties, or have a well populated hedgerow nearby. The north of England’s fondness for the fruit indicates their tendency to do well in less-than-ideal growing conditions, and damsons will succeed in all but heavy clay soil.
So, if you think your conditions aren’t good enough for fruit, try a damson.
The damson, for all its idiosyncratic taste and colour, is really just a form of plum, Prunus instititia, and older than the domestic plum, Prunus domestica. It comes from Eastern Europe and the western fringes of Asia and was brought to Italy more than 2,000 years ago from Damascus, thereby giving it its name
Damsons are always a surprise. They don’t have a great deal of charisma. All the outward signs are of some kind of lesser plum, not quite fat or juicy enough, and the tree is often hardly more than a scrawny outgrown shrub. Yet the taste and the colour have great intensity.
While plums get good press, damsons are not widely grown enough. How often do you see the fruit in shops? All members of the plum family like rich, wet soil, although only damsons really relish our strong winds and very cold snaps of winter weather.
Damsons work well in pies and crumbles as well as being delicious on their own, stewed. Pickled damsons make a wonderful accompaniment to cold meat.
Damson jam is the richest and best there is and damson cheese is a luxury. It is the most intense colour that the garden and kitchen can muster. That intensity was used to make commercial dye for wool and leather and, in the 19th century, when every well-dressed woman had a pair of leather gloves, dyeing leather with damson juice was an important small rural industry in these parts.
Damsons are not difficult to grow. They will come true from a stone and will produce fruit within 15 years.
Alternatively apart from the traditional varieties, you can buy a tree grafted on to a rootstock that will control the amount of growth. ‘Pixy’ is a dwarfing rootstock, and ‘St Julien A’ is a larger rootstock making a tree up to 12ft, and is also used for peaches and apricots. ‘Brompton’ is vigorous and used for standards and half-standards.
Because it comes true from seed, the damson has quietly carried on down the years so that the fruit you eat from your scruffy tree in the back garden tastes the same as the fruit the crusaders brought back from Damascus..
What varieties to grow
Most damsons are self fertile, that is they pollinate themselves with no need for another tree, however confirm this with the nursery or outlet where you buy your tree.
‘Merryweather’ produces the biggest of all damson fruits and is a heavy cropper, the fruit lasting well into autumn on the tree.
‘Bradley’s King’ was first recorded just over a decade ago and has fruits sweet enough to be eaten raw.
‘Fairleight’ has a good longer season and produces larger oval blue-black fruits than some varieties.