I guess when you get to being 60 years old, reminiscing is a common pastime. I know that it has become part of my life. It seems inevitable. Often it involves my Gran - Big Granny as we used to call her - a lovely country lady, full of wisdom, who lived to within a few months of her 100th birthday. She was passionate about gardening and cooking, and was always willing to pass on practical information and country lore, that in her later years I soaked up like a sponge. One of her great passions was making jam from the fruit that she harvested from her own garden and and she gathered from the surrounding countryside. My recent drift into nostalgia concerned her high quality damson jam, along with a very fine damson wine made from the fruit in her garden.
Damsons are not as popular now as they were when I was a child, and yet they are a great fruit and grow on a tree that can be comfortably accommodated in any reasonable sized garden as a decorative feature, for they produce a wonderful display of white blossoms in the spring. A show as good as many flowering plums and cherries. Traditionally they have always been cultivated in orchards as standard trees with clear trunks up to 1.8m (6ft) high before an expansive canopy of branches is encouraged to develop.
This has not changed for the domestic garden, even though they are as adaptable to fan training on the wall as cherries. However, it is possible to start with a young single stemmed maiden tree and to turn it into a fan shaped wall tree given patience and determination. It is extremely unlikely that a damson will have been pre-trained in the nursery so that an established form can be planted. Rootstocks are not important with damsons and are usually selected for the nurseryman's convenience rather than the quality of the crop or the vigour of the tree, although in recent years the dwarf growing 'Pixie' has been quite widely used.
Damsons are not difficult to grow given an open sunny position in a free-draining soil, ideally of alkaline tendency. It is wise to spray the trees regularly with a combined systemic insecticide and fungicide between bud burst and leaf fall and to also provide a winter wash when the trees are dormant. Pruning consists of retaining an open framework for the tree and encouraging the development of fruiting laterals, excessive growth being removed during the summer months. When major remedial pruning is necessary this must be done during the dormant period in order to avoid excessive bleeding and gumming. There are two widely available cultivars, the traditional large-fruited 'Merryweather', and the smaller 'Farleigh Damson'.
I always like to grow things with a bit of history, and the damson certainly has that. They originally came from the area around Damascus in Syria and it is believed were spread across Europe by the Romans, and thence to North America by the early settlers. Apart from their culinary use, damsons have long being used for dyeing textiles, the Romans producing a purple dye from their skins. In north-west England, in the county until recently known as Westmorland, there is still an active organisation that preserves the history of the damson called the Westmorland Damson Association. They are currently asking if any one has any information on the use of damsons for dyeing textiles in England. So if you know anything please visit their web-site, it is also a mine of damson history and information click here.
While damsons became popular in the UK and spread across North America, the closely related mirabelle was the "damson" of France. It only superficially bears any resemblance to the damson, but it is used in a similar way, although I suspect it does not have the same versatility for dyeing cloth. The mirabelle is still widely cultivated in the Lorraine district of France, where the fruits are used to make jam and a fruit brandy known as an eau-de-vie. Unlike the damson, which is rather tart, the mirabelle is much sweeter and can be eaten raw when completely ripe. There are two main kinds grown in France, the Nancy Mirabelle and the Metzian Mirabelle. The Nancy kind is the best to eat raw and is large-fruiting, while the Metzian is much smaller and with a sprinkling of red spots on the surface of the skin. This is commonly used for converting into preserves and jellies.
It is strange that this interesting fruit should be restricted so much in its cultivation to a district in France, while the damson has spread far and wide. Not that the mirabelle is not grown elsewhere, it certainly is, or at least has been, for I have come across it in the north-east of England. Interestingly the former farmhouse that is the country home of the British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, in his constituency in northern England is called Mirabelle. At least it was a few years ago, and I presume still is. I had the pleasure of being asked to advise on some aspects of his garden by his household staff, and I visited on a couple of occasions. The garden was a great family garden with the remnants of what appeared to be a stone fruit orchard. It was difficult to tell for sure, as I saw neither blossoms nor ripened fruit, but I suspect the damson-like trees were in fact mirabelles, a legacy from the farm of the past
Two new Calanthe are being launched by Edrom Nurseries of Coldingham in the Scottish borders at the Gardening Scotland 2006 flower show in June. Neither have been commercially available in the UK before. Calanthe kawakamiense (illustrated), which grows to 90cm (36ins) and is bright yellow, and C. Kozu Group, which appears to be a collective name, and apparently with blossoms which range from white through to bright red and reaches 40cm (16ins). Calanthe are hardy terrestrial orchids, mostly from Asia.
Sisyrinchium ‘Devon Skies’
This is a lovely new Blue Eyed Grass for a sunny spot in the rock garden or at the front of a border. It grows scarcely 15cm(6ins) high, and unlike many other Sisyrinchium species and cultivars, this is sterile and so does not make itself a nuisance by self-seeding. Available in the United States from Terra Nova Nurseries Inc. click here.
The Netherlands "Perennial of the Year"The Dutch nursery industry has just announced that the iris is to be their "Perennial of the Year"."The genus Iris consists of a wide variety of plants with beautiful flowers. There are many different cultivars available in a wide range of colours. The diversity of the genus means it is possible to find an iris that is suitable for almost any garden. There are irises with a regular root system, rhizomes or bulbous ones."
Niagara Flower and Garden Show 2006
9th, 10th and 11th June
Niagara Parks Botanical Garden,
Gardening Scotland 2006
2nd, 3rd and 4th June
The Royal Highland Centre,
2 Ingliston Gardens
Tel: +44 0131 333 0969
Fax: +44 0131 333 0960
Details: click here.
Calanthe: Edrom Nurseries
Sisyrinchium: Terra Nova Nurseries Inc.
Irises: Plant Publicity Holland
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