Hardy little fruit tree

Damsons are a kind of plum but with a smaller fruit.
Damsons are a kind of plum but with a smaller fruit.

Extremely easy to care for, and able to grow in almost any climate, the damson has bumper crops.

The council is upgrading the top end of the Huatoki walkway, so we'll take a break from that area of town and concentrate on the natural bounty of plants for a week or two.

I know many of you won't have seen a damson but you're missing out on a wondrous little tree. Yes they really are little and just about everybody could grow one in their back garden. They cope with hot climates, cold climates and can realistically be grown throughout New Zealand. The damson is easy to grow just about anywhere. By comparison the closely related plums and greengages do better in chilly places, and in Taranaki are best under the mountain away from the coast. Apart from preferring colder climes, they don't like windy places as this can affect the fruit set. Plums and greengages are tricky to pollinate to get a good crop of fruit. The flowers emerge really early in the spring when no self-respecting bee wants to be outside in the cold. And the flowers are really spiky making it difficult for the bee to do her job.

But again the damson comes out on top because although the flowers look just like a plum, the tree seems to want to set fruit every year.

There are several really remarkable things about damsons. They are really a kind of plum but with smaller fruit and a much sharper taste. As far as I know there is only one sort and they come true from seed. All you have to do is plant some stones or pips and hey presto you have a baby tree. You don't have to prune them or do anything really; just let them grow. After three or four years it will start to set fruit. Each fruit has a dusting of silver over rich purple and when you pick them the lustre comes off to reveal a shiny skin. A cropping tree looks very handsome sitting with clusters of berries all along the stem. We have to pick ours the minute they're ripe before the Kereru or native pigeons eat the lot. I always leave them the very topmost fruit so they're not without a feed. And besides it saves me trying to climb ladders for the sake of twenty fruits.

Having collected your fruit you have to decide what to do with them. Don't eat them raw - well not more than one, anyway ! They're tart - very tart. But they do make the most delicious jam in the world. I was raised on damson jam; it's really easy to make. No problems with setting, it works every time. Don't even remove the stones, just boil equal amounts of fruit and sugar, and that's it. Of course you have to spit the pips out when eating your toast and jam but that just keeps you awake at breakfast time.

Ordinary plums can be tricky blighters. They fruit when they feel like it, which is not very often in my garden. One of our plum trees had a delicious crop last year, absolutely scrumptious; but the flipside is - this was the first crop in 25 years. Our damson by comparison sets a crop nearly every year. It does have a tendency to biennial bearing which is common in all fruit trees. That's a bumper crop one year and little or nothing the following year as it takes a rest. Our damson has one very good year, then an ordinary year but still producing enough fruit to make 4 or 5 kilograms of jam.

Now that's the sort of fruit tree to own - small tree, fruits every year and easy care. I mean really easy care. We only ever go to our damson once a year and that's to pick the fruit. No pests, no bugs, no disease, and what's more, no need to ever prune, feed or cultivate. Can't say it's the most ornamental tree but it's not ugly either. Oh, and damson trees are self fertile, so you only need one tree. Is this the perfect fruit tree?

Another really weird thing about damsons is they will grow in any soil. Ours is in a swamp and at times is up to its ankles in water for a week or more. Any other fruit tree would have given up on this site years ago.

The Romans took the damson to England and the English have taken it all around the world. The name damson comes from Damascus in Syria where the fruit is thought to have originated. You can imagine how the tree copes with hot dry climates, but it copes equally well with our wet and windy climes too. Ordinary plums are called Prunus domestica and damson is a subspecies called Prunus domestica insititia.

Like me you may be interested to learn there is a god of grafting, Institor! Isn't that ironic! The one fruit tree that doesn't need grafting is named after the god of grafting.

Most fruit trees need to be grafted to keep the trees small or to keep pests and diseases at bay. Because the damson is naturally small and disease free we don't need to do that.

If you're feeling adventurous you could make damson gin. This is just a variation on an old English recipe for sloe gin. English hedgerows are made up of a mixture of species including a wild plum relative called sloe or blackthorn. Smothered in a froth of white flowers in early spring they bring the countryside to life. Then in autumn time the blue fruits are ripe, not that you'd eat them they're so sharp. Place the fruit in a jar; add a little cinnamon, some cloves and then top up the jar with cheap gin. Three months later you sieve the concoction and reserve the mush for making chutney or jam. The liquid is your sloe or damson gin and very potent it is too.

There's an orchard of damsons in the Hawke's Bay and they make all sorts of damson products. It's worth checking out. Go to thedamsoncollection.co.nz.

My thanks to Beth Hill for Latin translations and recipes.

Taranaki Daily News