Off foraging, back soon

Work (and blogging) in the forest garden has had to take a back seat for a while as I’ve been overwhelmed by the amount of fruit and fungi to be picked out and about. There’s a close relationship between foraging and forest gardening in any case: a lot of the plants I grow in my allotment are ones that I could forage from the wild, given an infinite time and travel budget. Off the top of my head, the native wild plants growing in my forest garden include hogweed, sweet cicely, wild garlic, dittander, garlic mustard, sea beet, Scots lovage, buck’s horn plantain, common and musk mallows, Babington’s leek, Good King Henry, pignut, wild strawberry, various sorrels and wood violet. Oh yes, and raspberries, currants and small-leaved lime. A meal containing all of these would involve a week-long expedition taking in woods, heaths and coast – or five minutes in my allotment.

With every wild plant I have to weigh up whether or not it is worth giving it a place in the forest garden. Pluses are given for plants that I like and that are particularly productive. Minuses are for being too ‘spready’ or too big or for attacking me when I’m minding my own business, as with nettle. There is also the question of whether I have ready access to the plant on my foraging rounds. All these considerations are fairly individual, so the decision will be different for each person. I’m very much given to changing my mind: the latest one that I’m reconsidering is nettle, after talking to Fi Martynoga of the Scottish Wild Harvests Association, who was serving up out-of-season nettle brose at Wooplaw Community Woodland‘s 25th-anniversary bash. Fi has a patch of nettles is her garden that she cuts down several times a year to keep a steady supply of fresh new growth.

One species I’m still definitely leaving for wild foraging is the bramble (Rubus fruticosus agg.), a thorny, rumbustious plant that loves to romp around an area, pining dreadfully if it is restricted. I once saw some speeded-up footage of bramble growth on a David Attenborough programme. The briars thrashed around like groping hands; then, finding a purchase with their thorns, they surged forward. Take a look on YouTube and you’ll see why I don’t want them in my garden! We’ve just had the first flush of blackberries in Aberdeen. They are always the nicest so we’ve frozen what we didn’t eat and will make jam with a later batch.

cherry plum

Another fruit I have been picking, literally by the bucketload, is Prunus cerasifera, the cherry plum or myrobalan/mirabelle. I’ve raved about cherry plum before but well, I’m going to do it again. It is a mystery to me how neglected mirabelles are, seeing as how they produce curtains of tasty, juicy fruit and never suffer any disease problems that I have seen. True, any given cherry plum tree can produce fruits that are small, tasteless, sparse, unreliable, perishable or quick to fall from the tree, but equally I have found trees that carry fruit that is large, tasty and lasting, ones which crop reliably and ones which don’t drop their fruit at the first breath of wind. I’m sure it can’t be beyond the efforts of plant breeders to combine all these characteristics in one tree. Indeed there are some named varieties of P. cerasifera, available in the UK from Orange Pippin Trees. Has anyone out there had any experience with any of them?

There is an impromptu breeding experiment going on on a bank near my house, where there are perhaps a hundred cherry plum trees, probably planted with their blossom in mind more than their fruit. Their qualities vary wildly but some are very good indeed. I discovered one this year that has incredibly sweet fruits, even when still partly green. It is yielding so heavily that I picked a bucketful in less than half an hour. Right next to it is a purple variety that has proven itself to be an excellent keeper. I have been growing on seeds from the best varieties that I have picked for a few years now, so if anyone has a field that they aren’t using and would like to do a cherry plum trial orchard, I’m waiting to hear from you.

To add to the plum orgy clearly going on in these parts, cherry plums have evidently been crossing with my Japanese plum tree, Prunus salicina. I’ve been growing on seeds from it and some of them obviously have a variety of cerasifera called Atropurpurea as their pollen parent. Atropurpurea has been bred for deep purple bark and fruit and pink flowers and is unmistakeable. It is a rubbish fruiter unfortunately, but it suggests that other cherry plums will have crossed with the Japanese one too. Since the domestic plum arose as a cross between P. cerasifera and P. spinosa, the native sloe, who knows what will result?

Japanese plums ripening on a window sill

Cherry plums

Cherry plum (Prunus cerasifera) is described by Andrew Lear (a.k.a. Appletreeman) as ‘Scotland’s most undervalued fruit’ and I completely agree. It is just a little too big to have in my allotment, but I would definitely have one in a larger forest garden. Fortunately, in Aberdeen I don’t have to grow it myself as they are all over the place in my neighbourhood. It’s one of the first plums to flower, so it’s often planted as an ornamental, and it makes a good hedge (although don’t expect any fruit from it growing it this way), and abandoned hedges sometimes grow into dense rows of fruiting trees. Whatever the reason, there are long lines of cherry plums in my local park and behind the nearby botanic gardens.

cherry plum

Cherry plum fruit is very variable. With some you can clearly see the reason for the common name as they are no larger than cherries, others are more plum-sized. The colour ranges from yellow to a speckled red through to a dark, plummy purple. Taste and texture vary too, but in general they are nice, but not strongly flavoured for plums. They are generally poor keepers and have a habit of falling off the tree the second they are ripe (although again, this varies). This means that they are not the best eaters, although they are juicy and somewhat moreish when munched directly off the tree.

Where they really come into their own is when they are cooked. This seems to enrich the flavour and they make lovely jam. I usually make dozens of jars every year and it is easily my favourite jam. They often fruit very heavily, so it doesn’t take long to gather bucketloads. I’m sure you don’t need me to tell you how to make jam, so I’ll just pass on a couple of tips. Ripe cherry plums are soft and fleshy, so it’s easy to get the stones out of them before you cook up the jam. Either use a cherry-pitter or just use a sharp knife cutting down on top of the stone and forcing it out. This saves all that mucking about skimming stones off the top of the boiling jam. The other tip is not to add water to the recipe. Just put the sugar (I use about half the weight of the fruit) on top of the fruit (cut in half) in a bowl and leave it overnight: the sugar draws the water out of the plums and in the morning they will be floating in their own juice.
The cherry plums in our park have become very popular and these days I have to fight for a share. Here’s a recipe for cherry plum chutney from the park’s Facebook page.
Ingredients:

  • 900g plums
  • 2 medium onions – roughly chopped
  • 700g mixed sultana and raisins
  • 600ml spiced malt vinegar (or malt vinegar with a pinch of allspice)
  • 500g brown sugar
  • 15g ground ginger
  • ½ tsp cayenne pepper
  • 45g salt

Chuck everything in a big pan. Let it simmer for 40 mins until thick and jammy. Remove the plum stones as they rise to the top of the mixture. Spoon into hot jars and seal with lids. Makes approx. 5x 450g jars of delicious tasty chutney!

There seems to be a lot of confusion between cherry plums and another kind of plum called the mirabelle. This isn’t helped by the similarity of the alternative name for the cherry plum – myrobalan plum – to mirabelle. It is hard to be sure whether the similarity reflects the two words coming from a common source, representing long-standing confusion, or whether they just happen to be similar-sounding names from different sources (etymologies are given for myrobalan from Ancient Greek μυροβάλανος (murobálanos), meaning something like ‘juicy date’, and for mirabelle from Latin ‘mirabilis’). The two kinds do indeed look very similar, but the true mirabelle, Prunus domestica ssp. syriaca, is a much more southerly plant, flourishing mostly in the south of England on this island. Unfortunately the confusion spreads into the nursery trade, so it can be difficult to be sure whether what you are being offered is a cherry plum or a mirabelle. There are a few named varieties of cherry plum, such as ‘Gypsy’, ‘Countess’ and ‘Golden Sphere’. ‘Countess’ is a freestone variety, meaning that the seed is not stuck to the flesh of the fruit but separates easily.

Cherry plums grow easily from seed and I have been planting seedlings around the housing estate where I live to provide for the next generation of foragers. If you grow seed from a tree that you like, you have a good chance of getting a good tree, although unfortunately there is also a good chance of getting a cross with an ornamental variety such as ‘Atropurpurea’, which rarely make good fruit. They also seem to cross readily with my Japanese plum (P. salicina) tree, which has the same chromosome number (2n=16). Alternatively, if you have found a tree with good qualities, you can produce an exact clone by grafting cuttings. Cherry plum seedlings are widely available as hedging plants and could be used as rootstock, or you can use a standard plum rootstock like St Julien. Plums can also be cloned by detaching suckers (shoots thrown up from the roots), but in my experience cherry plums are less keen to produce these than other plums.

Finally, it used to be thought that domestic plums (P. domestica) were a cross between cherry plums and the blackthorn or sloe (P. spinosa), but apparently there is now evidence that P. cerasifera is the sole ancestor of all our domestic plums.