Have you ever noticed a gloriously plump, dusty purple fruit, resembling a shop-bought plum, hanging from a tree? Chances are it was probably a delicious wild plum! Wild plums are common in the UK and as all members of the plum family are edible, they are a great fruit for new or nervous foragers to gather and eat!
Now, just because all members of the plum family are edible, doesn’t mean they’re all delicious! Some, especially the smaller ones, are very sour and bitter and are best left for the wine-makers or for the birds.
In this blog, I’ll be showing you how to identify a tree as a member of the plum family. We’ll also be taking a look at some of the different species of wild plums in the UK!
HOW TO IDENTIFY A WILD PLUM
It’s all well and good me telling you all plums are edible, but how will you know if you’ve found one?! Well, you’ll have to make sure your tree has all the defining characteristics of the ‘prunus’ family. You can use the following checklist...
Oval leaves with serrated edging and occasionally a slightly downy underside of the leaf. The leaves are usually green, but ornamental trees can have red or even purple leaves.
Tree, not a bush - make sure you can see a solid trunk.
Dark, smooth bark with a purple tinge in the new growth and horizontal lenticels.
Now you know you have a member of the prunus family, you’ll use the fruit to make sure you have a plum! Don’t worry too much here, the only thing you might get confused with is a cherry. A good rule of thumb is if the fruit is under 1 inch, it’s most likely a cherry or a sloe. Any larger, you’ve got some kind of plum, if it’s only slightly larger than 1 inch, it’s most likely a cherry plum!
WILD PLUM VARIETIES UK
There are lots of different types of plum in the UK, sloes, damsons, bullaces, greengages and domesticated plums. You’ve also got lots of hybrid trees, so IDing the particular plum you’ve found might be harder than it seems. Really, it doesn’t matter all too much! What matters is the taste!
But, for the sake of education, let’s take a look at how to differentiate between a few different species...
If you’ve ever tried a sloe straight from the tree, you might be asking what on earth they’re doing on this list. They taste nothing like plums! They’re sour, bitter and completely dry out all of the moisture in your mouth (which is why our favourite game as kids was offering people ‘wild blueberries’ and falling on the floor laughing when they nibbled the sloes and immediately spat them out in horror and disgust!).
But, sloes are actually the ancient ancestor of all plums. They have all the characteristics of plum and are completely edible but you won’t want to use them in your plum recipes! There’s a good reason one of the only things they’re used for is in gin!
You’ll know you have a sloe from the size of the fruit - they will be under 1 inch, very dark purple, perfectly round and with a dusty white coating when ripe.
Cherry plums are only slightly larger than sloes or cherries. Here’s another variety you might not want to use in your dessert recipes. They are not as sour as sloes but can be pretty tart and are usually best for making wine with! Cherry plums are usually red or orange in colour.
Bullaces & Damsons
Both bullaces and damsons look very similar to sloes, but they’re slightly larger! A bullace is slightly larger than a sloe, and a damson slightly larger than a bullace! The fruit will be round and dark purple in colour.
Domesticated plums are the largest, juiciest and sweetest plums. You’ll know you’ve found them because the fruit will be oval rather than round, and you’ll see that distinctive seam down the centre of the fruit, just like the ones in the supermarket! These plums might be purple, green, orange or even red.
HARVESTING WILD PLUMS
The best place to look for wild plums is either in the hedgerow, in your local park or maybe just in your local urban area (as long as you have a safe distance away from busy roads). The first tell-tale sign will be fallen fruit on the pavement. From there, look up! A world of plums is waiting for you.
You’ll know when the plums are ripe because they will come away from the tree very easily. It’s fine to pick them when they’re slightly underripe and leave them to soften for a few days at home. Some people find this preferable because plums can go over and get quite mouldy while still on the tree.
WILD PLUM RECIPES
So now you’ve collected your wild plums, what are you going to do with them? Well, the world is your... Plum? How about jam, cobbler, pie, roasted with cinnamon and served with ice cream? Or, my personal favourite, how about this wonderful wild plum strudel cake?
Are you going to forage for wild plums this year? Let me know in the comments below! I'd love to see what you make too, share a picture on Instagram and #foragedbyfern