Blackthorn Winter & Damson Spring

This week, we’ll be planting damson trees, one of them in the name of our son, Blake, now five months old.

Our main fruit areas at Hawkwood: the Vineyard, Orchard, Cherry Bank, Raspberry Row, Quince Orchard, Entrance Field Espaliers and Mediterranean Fans: are all established, but need all the care and netting we can spare them if they are to progress to cropping well for us. For that reason, the once-touted notion of veg and fruit steadily bleeding into each other, spiralling in to a polycultural paradise, remains in its infancy. But last year, yields of feral fruit were as impressive as many of our cultivated kinds, and we’re accordingly developing the foraging potential of our extensive zones.

Damsons and cherry plums are at the rough, tough end of the stone fruit family, and should tolerate, better than most, being left to their own devices in the scrubby waste land we’ve upcycled into our wildlife corridor. Indeed, damsons were favoured plants for inclusion in hedgerows and orchards in Shropshire and Kent. Only, curiously, in the other great damson growing county, Westmorland, is this custom reversed: damsons are planted, free-standing and spaced in prime production locations, and sheltered, around the town of Appleby, by apple windbreaks.

We know that damsons barely feature in growing and cooking beyond Britain, yet the lineage of the fruit is shrouded in mystery. Botanically it was named Prunus damasccena as it was believed to have originated in the antique town of Damascus in what is now Syria. But this doesn’t necessarily prove anything: Cape Gooseberries are, like Paddington, Peruvian; if Capsicum chinense are from China then so am I; and our London Plane is, botanically speaking, Platanus x hispanica: maybe its not a Londoner. The Romans or the Crusaders are variously said to have brought back the small dark plum from the Middle East, yet archaeological excavations show it was enjoyed by people in the Alps 4000 years ago, as well as by York’s diaspora of marauding Vikings. It may well be that damsons are in fact native, like their cousin Prunus spinosa, the blackthorn, a plant most celebrated for sloe fruits of gin fame. Perhaps, like “England’s mountains green” in Blake’s Jerusalem, the claiming of a biblical connection serves to sanctify that which might otherwise be belittled.

The difficulty in nailing down the damascena lies in the sheer abundance and diversity of sloes, bullaces and other wild plums that populate the gardens, hedges and woodland edges of this island: species, varieties and cultivars have crossed and backcrossed over so many generations that we now barely know who’s who anymore. But we do know that this provides us with the annual gifts of iconic early spring flower, and a deep, wide, resilient gene pool that should ensure these feral stone fruit survive longer than humans do.

A couple of weeks ago, the white marzipan froth of the Lea Valley’s sloe flowers burst forth with the first brave notes of Spring warmth. In folklore, and more often than not in our material world, this heralds the “blackthorn winter”, a bitter cold spell before the true Spring flows. This year has been no exception, the northerly winds blowing us back a season. But our peaches and apricots will open up soon, then the plums, then pears then apples, the whole blooming roll call, and winter will surrender, save for its last gasp spasms of late frosts. These can visit as late as the end of May in these parts, wreaking ruin for tender vegetables and hardy fruit crops alike.

So in many ways the growing season seems stalled and short, though in childhood summer seemed a never-ending flow. I have a sense that the wisdom of a garden lover has something to do with managing to unify these apparently opposing realities. And that the expression of this wisdom is to eat fruit, and plant fruit trees: for now, and for ever.

2 thoughts on “Blackthorn Winter & Damson Spring

  1. “if Capsicum chinense are from China then so am I; and our London Plane is, botanically speaking, Platanus x hispanica: maybe its not a Londoner.”

    “The London plane, (Platanus x acerifolia), probably came into being in the mid-seventeenth century as a natural hybrid of the Oriental plane, (P. orientalis), and the Western plane, (P. occidentalis), rather than being cross-bred by horticulturists. It became popular as soon as it was available.

    It is not known how old a London plane may become because none is known to have died of old age. The oldest trees of this species date from first plantings around 1660-80. The tallest London plane has achieved 48.5 metres in height; the tallest London planes in London have reached 30-35 metres.”

    from: The London Plane

  2. “Yet despite the tree’s ubiquity it was only ‘discovered’ in the mid-17th century by John Tradescant the younger in his famous nursery garden and ark in Vauxhall. And ‘discovered’ in the sense that there’s a possibility the tree did not exist before this time. So why was London’s most popular tree so late on the scene?

    Here we have to go into the tree’s family history. The London Plane is most likely a hybrid between the American sycamore and the majestic Oriental plane. It took a long time for these ‘lovers’ to meet — the two trees thwarted by growing on opposite sides of the globe. But it seems the voyages of the early modern period with routine collections of specimens being brought home led to the American sycamore’s journey from its native eastern America, and the Oriental plane from southeast Europe. The first account of the Oriental plane in Britain is found in William Turner’s 1548 book: Names Of Herbs. While the American sycamore perhaps arrived some 150 years or so later at the beginning of the 17th century.

    The London plane would then have hybridised when its ‘parents’ found themselves sharing the same space. There is some probability that this was in the very Vauxhall garden where Tradescant first found the tree since both requisite family members were indeed there.”


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