Mild and gentle spring weather ensures April will be filled with blossom. Cherry trees surrounded with carpets of fallen petals, crab apples displaying their first few flowers, and damson trees enveloped in clouds of fresh, white blooms.
The damson, Prunus instititia, is really a type of plum, but it is far older than the domestic plum. In its natural habitat, it grows in Eastern Europe and the western fringes of Asia. It was brought back from there to Italy around 2,000 years ago by crusaders returning from Damascus, hence its common name. After its introduction to Italy, it then arrived in France around 1200. At this time, the fruit was known as Damascene. Because the damson comes true from seed, fruit that you collect today from a damson tree tastes exactly the same as it did 2,000 years ago. A basketful of ripe damsons on your table is a fine way to capture a hint of medieval dining.
If you have ever spent a day collecting damsons straight from the tree, you will know how easily your fingers become stained with purple. The staining ability of damson skins was fully utilised by the Romans who used the dye in the production of fabrics. In the 19th century, damsons became an important commercial crop in many parts of England because the dye was used to colour products made from wool and leather. As a result, damson orchards were a common sight in many parts of England at this time. Later, in the early 1900s, damson orchards were prolific in Cumbria and Lancashire when the fruit was regarded as an important and financially viable crop for jam making.
Fortunately, we can still enjoy the wonderful spectacle of damson orchards in full bloom in Cumbria in the Lyth valley which is well known for the cultivation of this fruit. The Lyth valley provides limestone conditions that are much loved by damson trees, and lime in the soil is also said to impart a special nutty flavour to the fruit. For a few decades, after World War ΙΙ, there was a decline in damson orchards due to economic reasons, but a recent resurgence of interest in this fruit has ensured the continuation of Cumbrian damson orchards, for another few decades at least – and hopefully for much longer.
There are several naturally occurring varieties of damson in the UK, but the Westmorland Damson belongs to Cumbria. The Westmorland is said to be a completely separate variety belonging to the Lyth Valley, but some damson growers think that it might be a type of Shropshire Prune because its fruit is sweet enough to eat straight from the tree when it is fully ripe. Fruits can be used in baking, made into chutneys, jams and jellies, or left to soak in alcohol for a couple of months to impart their colour to damson gin.
Planting a damson tree is a true investment for a gardener. Clouds of snow-white blossom provide a floral display that is one of Cumbria’s well-known April treasures. There will be fruit to collect in late summer or early autumn, and trees are usually long-lived. They tolerate most types of soil, with the exception of peat and heavy clay, and they prefer soil that remains moist but well-drained throughout the year. Sunshine is essential for a good crop of blossom and fruit, and if possible, choose a site that is sheltered from cold winds. Damson trees are tough and sturdy and therefore relatively unaffected by diseases that occur amongst other stone fruits. You do, however, have to wait for a few years after planting before the tree produces its first flowers and fruit, but it is a worthwhile wait!