Our farm was a raw piece of land when we acquired it seven years ago. Beyond the forest, we saw was one plot of land on the northeast corner that was bare and ready to be reimagined. We were poring over seed catalogs making plans for the rest of the property, but that tract needed something more. It became our orchard.
We knew we wanted to plant apples and pears. We sought out other fruit and nut varieties that would work in our growing zone. That led us to to chestnuts, cherries, pears, peaches, and, only because they could grow here, damson plums. We didn’t know anything about the tree or its fruit, but we wanted diversity in our orchard.
A few jams, a lot of preserves, tarts, and a cake later, we asked, “Why didn’t we know about these before?”
For the first five years, our two damson trees grew, but they didn’t produce any fruit. That’s typical for most fruiting trees, including apples and pears. Last year, which was year six, we saw our first green plums. We picked them while they were still immature and preserved them in salt. We looked up one day this year to see our damson trees loaded with fruit. A branch on the larger of the trees, already damaged by the hard winter, nearly capitulated under the weight. We put a sling on the injured tree’s arm, and it held on until last week, when a bounty of purple fruit brought it to the ground.
A bucket full of fruit and a dive into the recipe books made us appreciate the seven years of care that brought the fruit to harvest. A crew of two-to-eight-year-old kids helped us pick more than 150 pounds of fruit from the two trees. A few jams, a lot of preserves, tarts, and a cake later, we asked, “Why didn’t we know about these before?”
The damson is a subspecies of plum. It’s smaller, with a distinctive astringent taste. It’s edible raw, but it tastes even better when cooked, and it can serve a range of preparations, both sweet and savory. My kids can’t get enough. Every time I give them a handful, I turn around to a pile of the small pits. The compact tree is a hardy and easy-to-grow species that can thrive in a variety of soils and microclimates.
When the winter is getting you down later this year, turn the pages of a tree catalog and find yourself a damson. A few years from now, after it settles into your landscape, its fruit will justify the work of planting and maintenance.
The Farm Damson Jam
Makes about 3 pints
2 lb. pitted and chopped damson plums
Scant 1 cup honey
¼ cup water
2 tbsp. good quality gin
A few shoots of sweet woodruff (optional)
Combine all ingredients in a heavy-bottomed pan. Heat slowly until sugar dissolves, then increase heat and bring to a boil. Remove sweet woodruff. When the jam’s temperature reaches 220°F, ladle into 3 pint jars. Let cool and refrigerate.