Thursday, 14 June 2018

Cherry Plum (Prunus cerasifera)

CHERRY PLUM (Prunus cerasifera)
Family: Rosaceae

Cherry plum fruits.
(Hailsham, Marshfoot, July 2009)
The Cherry plum (or Myrobalan) is a native of the Balkans, Russia, Central Asia and the Middle East (Zohary et al. 2012: 140-141). Here in Britain it is introduced and the trees are largely relicts of earlier plantings or self-sown, feral forms. It is confined almost entirely to the Midlands and SE England where the small trees can dominate overgrown hedgerows (for distribution maps see Online Atlas of the British and Irish Flora). The trees have spines that although often long are relatively thin. Normally it is the earliest plum to flower. Its showy flowers (with leaves) open around mid March (Lang 1987) and the fruits ripen from late June right through into early August, with occasional yellow-fruited trees producing fruit into late Sepember[i]. The fruits are pendulous and hang singly on relatively long pedicels of about 15 mm. Like cherries, the fruits are rounded and often a rich cherry red, though they can range from deep purple to custard-yellow. However, with a diameter of 15-30 mm they are a lot larger than wild cherries (Prunus avium; for examples of the range of fruit morphologies see Botu et al. 2012; Faust 2011: figure 1). 
Cherry plum – showing its thin scratchy spines.
(Hailsham, Ersham Road, August 2009)

They have been described as ‘melting, very juicy’, and with ‘a pleasant, lively, subacid flavour’ (Downing 1857; see entry in Plants For A Future [PFAF] database). The flavour of some of the mature fruits can be overly sweet and insipid, although the flavour does sharpen somewhat when the fruits are boiled (Hillman unpublished field notes). This is probably because boiling releases some of the acids initially concentrated in the skin. On Turkey’s Anatolian Plateau, wild populations of what taxonomists have classified as the same species (albeit listed under its synonym: Prunus divaricata; Dönmez and Yildirmili 2000: 197-200) have red-flushed, yellow-skinned fruits that, eaten raw, are highly acidic [ii].

Prehistoric and historic usage
Cherry plums have been identified on Roman and Medieval sites in Europe (Bosi et al. 2009; van der Veen et al. 2008; Willcox 1977).

Cherry plum fruits.
(Marsh below Hailsham, August 2009)

Cherry plum fruit leather
(Hailsham: marsh edge, September 2010)

Bosi, G., Mercuri, A.M., Guarnieri, C. and Mazzanti, M.B. 2009. Luxury food and ornamental plants at the 15th century A.D. Renaissance court of the Este family (Ferrara, northern Italy). Vegetation History and Archaeobotany 18: 389-402.

Botu, M., Tomić, L., Cvetković, M., Gjamovski, V., Jemrić, T., Lazović, B., Ognjanov, V., Pintea, M., Sevo, R., Achim, G., et al. 2012. Balkan Pomology: Plums. SEEDNet's WG for Fruit and Vitis, 2012: Ljubljana.

Dönmez, A.A. and Yildirmili, S. 2000. Taxonomy of the Genus Prunus L. (Rosaceae) in Turkey. Turkish Journal of Botany 24: 187-202.

Downing, A.J. 1857. The fruits and fruit trees of America: the culture, propagation, and management, in gardens and orchards of fruit trees generally. Wiley & Halsted, New York.

Faust, M. 2011. Origin and dissemination of plums. In Janick, J. (ed.), Origin and Dissemination of Prunus Crops: Peach, Cherry, Apricot, Plum, Almond. International Society for Horticultural Science (ISHS), Leuven. pp. 139-186. [accessed: 06.04.18]

Lang, D.C.  1987.  The complete book of British berries. Threshold Books, London.

Online Atlas of the British and Irish Flora. Botanical Society of Britain & Ireland. [accessed 12.04.18]

Plants For A Future (PFAF). [accessed 12.04.18]


van der Veen, M., Livarda, A. and Hill, A. 2008. New plant foods in Roman Britain – dispersal and social access. Environmental Archaeology 13(1): 11-36.

Watkins, R. 1995. Cherry, plum, peach, apricot and almond: Prunus spp. (Rosaceae). In Smart, J. and Simmonds, N.W. (eds.), Evolution of Crop Plants. 2nd Edition. Longman Scientific & Technical, Harlow. pp. 423-429.

Willcox, G. 1977. Exotic plants from Roman waterlogged sites in London. Journal of Archaeological Science 4: 269-282.

Zohary, D., Hopf, M. and Weiss, E. 2012. Domestication of Plants in the Old World. The origin and spread of domesticated plants in Southwest Asia, Europe, and the Mediterranean Basin. 4th Edition. Oxford University Press, Oxford.



[i] The dark purple forms seem to ripen first, following shortly after the wild cherries.
[ii] For details of the taxonomy of the Prunus aggregate see: Watkins 1995; Zohary et al. 2012.

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