How to Grow, Prune and Use Damsons

, written by gb flag

Damson fruit

I just love surprising people. What fruit tree, asked a friend recently, would I recommend that wasn’t too big, looked good, didn’t demand a lot of work but produced a large, reliable harvest that was, most importantly, useful in the kitchen? I could see her waiting for me to suggest a particular apple, pear or plum. A damson, I said. Definitely a damson.

You may not be familiar with this tart but very flavorsome fruit, although it’s reputed to have been brought over by the first European settlers. Not to be confused with the Jambal or Jambolan (which is a different plant, but with similar fruit sometimes called the damson plum), it’s a member of the Prunus (cherry and plum) family but produces much smaller fruit and is likely to do better in the eastern US than other European plums.

What surprises me is that, even in the UK where the fruit has a long and noble history—especially around Shropshire where a damson festival has recently been revived—this fruit isn’t more actively sought after. Most people seem to get to know its charms by moving to a house where one already grows in the garden. Yet, my damson harvest is the most reliable of all my fruit trees and the most eagerly anticipated.

It’s true that, because of their tartness, you’re unlikely to want to eat damsons straight off the tree, but we get a good harvest every August unless the blossom was damaged by a particularly bad late frost, the trees survive with barely any maintenance and, as well as making delicious preserves and pies, damsons can also be used in place of sloes to make a gorgeous damson-flavoured gin liqueur (a real favorite in our house).

Damson blossom

Cultivation and Varieties

Textbook advice is usually to put a tree in well-drained soil somewhere warm and sunny, preferably facing south, protected from frost. However, for many years our damsons were in deep shade for most of the day because of a neighbor’s (now happily demised) Leylandii. We still got excellent harvests.

In reality the damson copes with most soils, even heavy clay, though if yours is very sandy or gravelly you’ll need to improve it with plenty of organic matter before planting. What you do need to ensure is that it isn’t in a position where it will suffer strong winds or bad frosts which will strip off the blossom. However, if yours is a very exposed garden, there’s no need to despair. A damson can do well if planted where it enjoys some protection from a hedge or tree, especially if you choose a frost-resistant cultivar like Farleigh Damson.

Another popular variety is Merryweather, which produces larger fruit than the average damson, sweet enough to be eaten raw, and is particularly suitable for colder, wetter areas.

Expect your damson to grow to around 10-15 feet (3-4.5m). Shropshire Prune (also known as Prune Damson) is one to choose for neat, compact growth, or you could look for a tree grown on Pixy rootstock to restrict growth to 8-10 feet (2.4-3m).

Damsons are self-fertile, so you don’t need to plant more than one. However, it is a useful pollinator of other plum trees (like apples, they are divided into different pollination groups so make sure you choose one with a similar flowering period) and, like all self-fertile cultivars, is likely to produce a larger crop when cross-pollinated by another tree.

Pruning a Damson

Another plus is that, once mature, a damson needs little pruning. It does generate quite a lot of twiggy growth though, which means the tree becomes congested with old wood over time, so every year I cut off any of the spindly bits that have died back. (Dead, diseased and crossing branches should also be removed.) You don’t have to do it so often, but it’s a job I enjoy.

It’s also possible to do this job while picking the fruit. Pruning during the winter increases the chance of the tree becoming infected with silver leaf fungus so, like all plums, damsons should only be pruned from late spring to early autumn.

Damson and apple jelly on toast

Preserving the Harvest

Damsons quickly start to soften and rot once they’re picked so you need to think about preserving the harvest before you pick bucket-loads. The fruit makes lovely pies, jams, jellies, chutneys and cheese or butter (a solid sort of jelly that can be added to pie fillings or spread on toast) and combines well with apple.

Whatever you do, though, do remember to keep some for that delicious damson gin!

NB If you’d like to find out if damsons are to your taste, suppliers of products from around the world are listed in the useful A Guide to Damsons which also gives information on damsons’ history, usage and the many different varieties.

For planting advice, see our article on Crab Apples. Note: Pixy rootstock will need staking.

By Helen Gazeley

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Comments

 
"I've grown Damson trees from suckers that were dug up by the owner and about to be discarded - they are fruiting ok (after 3 years from planting)"
Pete on Sunday 20 August 2017
"Hi Pete. That's a brilliant result - and to fruit just three years after planting is very quick. Hopefully you'll enjoy many years of exceptional fruits. Enjoy!"
Ben Vanheems on Friday 25 August 2017
"I so agree with your comments about damsons being the best tree to select for fruit and the most reliable. We've got a huge harvest this year. Thanks so much for the advice about pruning and that it can be done while harvesting. I'd like to know whether the blossom and fruit comes on old or new growth? I've not been able to get to our tree for a couple of years and want to reduce the height to make next year's harvest easier to pick. Will that affect next year's harvest? Not that I've got much choice as it's desperate for a good tidy up. "
Stephanie Trotter on Sunday 27 August 2017
"Hi Stephanie. The fruits of damsons form on the base of the previous year's growth. Reducing the height would obviously lose you some of the crop, but obviously it will be better in the long run if your tree is easier to pick. Once it's back into shape pruning will be a lot easier too."
Ben Vanheems on Tuesday 29 August 2017
"I would be pleased to know if it OK to use damsons with mites to make jam? Mrs Webb"
Mrs Webb on Saturday 2 September 2017
" While the mites may not be poisonous, my concern would be that they would spoil the jam and it's storage life may be compromised. I would probably advise against using them."
Ben Vanheems on Sunday 3 September 2017
"Thanks Ben for your comments about pruning. I'm so grateful to have had the go ahead to prune while harvesting. I've already got rid of a lot of crossing branches and twiggy bits. Now there are just the odd tall branches and we may have to be cruel to be kind!So far we've made 27 pots of jam and three large kilner jars of stewed damsons and there are still about three huge branches with damsons on that are out of reach! The only problem is that I've given up sugar so won't be eating any of it myself (well perhaps the odd bit on special occasions). Giving up sugar has cured my psoriasis which someone reading this might like to know. However, the damsons are so beautiful and bountiful I can't resist trying to use them. Luckily we also have loads of runner beans which I can eat and I've been picking, slicing, blanching and putting in the freezer. Divine. Thanks again for your helpful advice."
Stephanie Trotter on Sunday 3 September 2017
"Stephanie Trotter why not make Damson wine? its beautiful and would go well with most food (or just quaffing on its own!) - the sugar would be turned into alcohol so presumably not a problem for you??"
Pete on Sunday 3 September 2017
"Thanks Pete. That's a great idea!"
Stephanie Trotter on Sunday 3 September 2017
"Hi Stephanie. Sounds like you have an exceptional glass of damsons. I do like Pete's idea of damson wine. It is totally delicious! Enjoy the seasonal bounty. "
Ben Vanheems on Sunday 3 September 2017
"Thanks Ben. I hope so although not sure about how I make sure all the sugar turns into alcohol! Ideas welcome! It works with whisky - not sure about wine though."
Stephanie Trotter on Sunday 3 September 2017
"Stephanie - don't worry - there are plenty of good wine making websites; use a hydrometer and ferment the wine to 0.990SG which means all the sugar will have gone- no worries!"
Pete on Sunday 3 September 2017
"I have such a crop of damsons this year can I wait for the damsons to fall off the trees. Also our damson trees have not been printed for serval years except when a main branch gets over loaded with fruit. I was picking damsons on Saturday 2nd September when I fell through sawing a main branch and my age is 71 years old."
peter shaw on Tuesday 5 September 2017
"Hi Peter. I'd aim to pick the lower-hanging fruits if you can. The others can fall, but they may get bruised and/or eaten by wasps etc. That said, they will be nice and soft by this stage, so perfect for making damson wine and jams. Enjoy them - and stay safe!"
Ben Vanheems on Tuesday 5 September 2017
"I have a sweet eating damson, it is a small variety which is currently about 6 feet tall. It was planted nearly two years ago but has not yet fruited ( no blossom either obviously!) I was told it would be fine in the sheltered and rather shady corner of my Shropshire garden. any thoughts on why this might be or what I can do to encourage it to produce flowers and fruit?"
Jude S on Sunday 17 September 2017
"Hi Jude. It may simply be because it is still a bit young and possibly needs another year or two to start flowering. Perhaps let us know if it hasn't produced fruit next spring. Damsons usually do best in a sunnier position, but certainly it should at least flower wherever it is if it's growing okay. Which makes me think it's just its young age currently."
Ben Vanheems on Monday 18 September 2017
"Hi, damson lovers, I have loads of beautiful damsons but found all the methods of removing the stones for jam very time consuming and there were always lots left; SO I got a plastic bowl and drilled large holes (slightly smaller than damson stones)around the base ,now most of the pulp comes through with much less effort.I hope others find this helpful.Pruning info very handy I have a very tall old tree."
Marny Beckett on Wednesday 4 October 2017
"Hi Marny. This is a brilliant tip! Many thanks indeed for sharing."
Ben Vanheems on Wednesday 4 October 2017
"Hi damson lovers I make a lot of damson jam as it's my absolute favourite jam. I bought a mouli from a charity shop, which is the perfect tool for removing stones. I once counted the stones from a kilo of damsons, there were over 100, picking out those by hand is a tedious task. "
Julie on Saturday 21 October 2017
"Hi Julie. Many thanks for the tip to remove the stones. It can be a very tedious task, so anything to make it easier is great to learn about!"
Ben Vanheems on Monday 23 October 2017
"I have a 25 year old damson (Merryweather - I think!) which rarely gives us a good crop. It is however, always covered in blossom which appears to set, then falls off. A few persist to harvestable size. I wonder if late frosts are responsible, or a lack of pollinating insects. We are in N. Ireland and in a frost pocket (at the bottom of a hill!). Many thanks for advice!"
Mr Stephen Hey on Sunday 5 November 2017
"Stephen- I'm no expert but think the lack of fruit could be down to both late frost and lack of pollinators - if you've only the one tree try planting another nearby if possible - would it be feasible to protect the blossom with fleece on frosty nights? is there anyone who could bring some beehives near to your tree- finally, you could always hand pollinate (laborious I know but you'd probably get more fruits!)"
Pete on Sunday 5 November 2017
"Hi Pete Thanks for the advice! I will try to find room for another! I have a beehive and a nucleus of bees in the pipeline for next year, so here's hoping! Fleece would be a feasable option. Happy gardening!"
STEPHEN HEY on Sunday 5 November 2017
"Hi Stephen I think it is the frost because I live in the Isle of Wight where the weather is usually mild. We only have one tree and it was covered in fruit this year and I didn't really notice the blossom particularly. I'd definitely try fleece. "
Stephanie on Sunday 5 November 2017
"Thanks for that Stephanie! Bees and fleece - There WILL BE CHUTNEY!!"
Stephen Hey on Monday 6 November 2017
"Someone mentioned damson wine. I can testify that this is a fantastic use of damsons. I have made various kinds of weird wines using hedgerow fruit, and my damson wine is the best. It goes down especially nicely at Christmas - deep, rich, warming. Sloe wine is also good, but I've found damson to have a smoother flavour."
JonathanCR on Monday 14 May 2018
"Thanks for the tasty notes Jonathan - I've tried making sloe gin in the past very successfully, but will look to give damson wine a go this year after such a high recommendation."
Ben Vanheems on Monday 14 May 2018
"I inherited a lovely old tree when I moved to my present house. Previously, I have been too slow off the mark to get much fruit, esp as it is v large. This year, we have been eating off the tree -- v sweet-- and then using various implements (walking-stick, clothes prop) to shake the upper branches. As many fruit had been knocked to the ground by the recent rains, we laid out a big sheet, to separate the fallen fruit from the ones we were shaking. V simple for jam! Now, it seems it is the wasps' turn. Goes v quickly from green to over-ripe."
Edward N on Saturday 4 August 2018
"After 7 years my damsom tree in Co Armagh had not fruited. I spoke to it sternly , saying I'd chop it down next year. It has fruited wonderfully ever since. I keep it low for easy picking using a small ladder. Good crops. Thin side stems shoot out of main trunk and thicker branches. They look a bit forlorn at the moment. Should they be cut back or what ? Ps...you write lovingly of damsons. No damsons in distress there !?? "
Terry Anderson on Saturday 22 September 2018
"Thank you for the reminder to prune my damson now and not wait until winter. Thanks also for the tip about wine making - hardly any fruit this year I think but been so busy with raspberries, picking sweet pea flowers and runner beans not to mention making endless apple sauce that I haven't had time to really look. Tree needs pruning again though despite what I thought was a really hard prune last year."
Stephanie Trotter on Saturday 22 September 2018
"Hi Edward, Terry and Stephanie. Thanks to all of you for your delightful damson updates! They are beautiful trees aren't they? Terry - I would thin any growth that's getting a bit congested by pruning selected branches right out. Damsons fruit on both old and new wood, so you don't have to be too precise. So long as you're removing the dead, diseased, dying and crossing branches - plus any others that are excessively clogging up the centre of the tree - you're doing fine. Damsons can certainly be left to get more congested than, say, an apple would."
Ben Vanheems on Monday 24 September 2018
"Thank you so much Ben. I didn't know damsons fruit on both old and new wood. That's a huge help."
Stephanie Trotter on Monday 24 September 2018
"You’re very welcome Stephanie."
Ben Vanheems on Monday 24 September 2018

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