Plum (Prunus domestica)
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Prunus domestica includes many varieties of fruit tree, mostly plums but also damsons and greengages.
Common name: plum
Scientific name: Prunus domestica
UK provenance: non-native
Interesting fact: it's thought that plums are originated from a hybrid between blackthorn (P. spinosa) and cherry plum (P. cerasifera). There are many subspecies and varieties of plum that cross pollinate easily, producing fruits of varying sweetness and colour.
What does plum look like?
Overview: a small tree or sometimes a shrub with dark brown bark. The branches grow straight and twigs are often spiny in wild plants.
Leaves: vary in shape depending on the subspecies, but commonly they are oval with a short point at the top or teardrop shaped. There are small teeth around the margins of the leaves and it is smooth on top. Some leaves will be downy underneath.
Flowers: white flowers appear in clusters of 2-3 at the same time as the leaves.
Fruits: smooth, hairless and round-oblong shaped. It can be red, purple, yellow or green and contains one rough stone which is flat and slightly pitted.
Bullace is a wild variety of the plum. The fruit is similar to that of damson but varies in colour from white, yellow or green to blue, purple or black. It tends to be acid to the taste until ripe. Its main value lies in its fruit ripening up to six weeks later in the year, in October-November time. Bullaces are generally used for cooking and fruit wine.
Mirabelle plum is another unusual variety, the fruit ripens to a bright orange-yellow colour. These fruits are primarily used for making conserves, and the juice for wine or brandy, however the fruit is perfectly edible fresh. Mirabelle plums are very hard and sour until ripe.
Look out for: the leaf stem is hairy, often with a pair of yellow-green coloured glands.
Could be confused with: other species from the genus Prunus, which includes cherries and stone fruit trees.
Identified in winter by: twigs are ridged, starting green then turning purplish through to brown.
Where to find plum
Plum can be fond naturalised in hedges, wood-borders, scrub and waste places. Many trees are relics of cultivation, some are still being introduced to the countryside from discarded plum stones. It flourishes best in sheltered spots, away from cold winds and frosts as it flowers and fruits early.
Value to wildlife
It is a foodplant for a large number of butterflies and moths and its flowers attract many pollinating insects. The fruit is also a food source for birds and mammals.
Mythology and symbolism
The late production of fruit by the wild plum gives rise to the association of the plum tree with endurance and the vitality of life. It is a particularly important symbol in Chinese culture.
How we use plum
The fruit is used widely in food and drink production to create jams, preserves and alcoholic drinks. The timber is occasionally used for musical instruments but tends not to be widely available in great amounts due to the small size of the tree.
Plum trees can be at risk from plum moth caterpillars that feed on the inside of the fruit, and brown scale, a sap sucking insect.