Thursday, September 28, 2017



Bullaces, along with damson and sometimes other smallish plums such as gages and mirabelles, have been called Prunus institia, or (which I think is better) Prunus domestica ssp. institia

There seems to be no botanically-acceptable distinction between damson and bullace. Of the numerous distinctions that are claimed, the most credible is Mrs Grieve's, that damson fruit is somewhat oval whereas bullace fruit is round. Also, the word damson always seems to imply a dark purple fruit, whereas bullaces may be any colour including green and gold. And generally you more often hear of damsons in a garden context than a hedgerow context.

So perhaps the best way of seeing it is that the word "damson" is used to name a particular group of varieties of "bullace", which in turn vaguely designates those plums that are more sloe-like than most, i.e. with smaller fruit, downy twigs, and occasional thorns.

[In 2015 the subject was discussed on the Facebook Wild Flower Group. The following ID tips come mostly from Richard JD Smith and Richard Collingridge.

P1 .Cherry-plum (P. cerasifera)
Thornless, more or less
Fruit round, ripens early (the earliest plum), sweet-tasting; purple, red, orange, yellow, white.
New growth twigs are usually green (the others are purplish).
Flowers, earliest, with the leaves. Sepals reflexed. Longer flower-stalks and petals than P2.

P2. Blackthorn/Sloe (P. spinosa)
More fruits in a cluster than P3 or P4
Fruits small, globose, extremely astringent (skin) and sour (flesh). Black-purple (may look blue because of bloom)
Fruit-stones not or scarcely flattened
Flowers, later than P1, before leaves. Sepals not reflexed, flower-stalks and petals shorter than P2.

P3. Bullace (P. domestica ssp. institia, var "Bullace")
Shrub or small tree
Usually not or scarcely thorned, but sometimes thorny.
Fruits less in a cluster than P2
Fruit usually larger than P2 (typically about double the diameter); smaller than P4. Globose. Sweeter than P2, but skin may still be astringent. Black-purple, also yellow-to-reddish (e.g. "Shepherd's Bullace")
Fruit-stone more flattened than P2.
Upper leaf shiny
Twigs hairy
Flowers, slightly later than P2, with leaves.

P4. Damson (P. domestica ssp. institia, var "Damson")
Small tree
Rarely with any thorns
Fruit earlier than P3, larger and more oval than P3. Sweeter than P2. Purple.
Upper leaf not shiny
Twigs not hairy
Flowers, slightly later than P2, with leaves.     ]

[Incidentally, a few botanists reserve the name "Bullace" for the few garden varieties sold under that name. They call everything else "Wild Plum", a name I would use only for wild specimens -- often the relic of old orchards -- of Prunus domestica ssp. domestica (large fruits, flattened stones and hairless twigs).]

Bullaces, mixed up with honeysuckle.

Bullaces, showing a couple of thorns

Bullaces are a common plant around Frome. They often spring up as weeds in gardens and are then grubbed out.

The local Frome folk-belief is that these are a sort of worthless cherry unique to the Frome area and they never produce fruit. That is wrong on all counts.

It's true that the plants that spring up in gardens are never allowed to grow big enough to produce fruit. (Except in Laura's.)

But the fruit is a common sight in local hedges and thickets. For example, there's a fine harvest to be gathered next to Halfords on the local trading estate.

It's possible to eat bullaces raw as a survival food. You could even get to like them. They are a bit sour,  but are much more palatable than sloes.

The best way to eat them is as a jam, with some extra sugar. Bullace jam has the same virtues as damson jam. Some people say it's even better! 

The tedious challenge with bullaces is removing the stones. The stones are small and pitted, and the flesh does not come away from them cleanly. They float out during cooking, eventually.

I discovered by chance that if you freeze bullaces, then defrost them, the stones come out easily. Bullace pie beckoned, but in the end I never baked one; the small sourish plums were too perfect as a topping for my morning granola!

Bullaces / Woodbine



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