Friday, 15 June 2018

Feral Bullaces and Damsons (Prunus domestica subsp. insititia)

FERAL BULLACES AND DAMSONS (Prunus domestica subsp. insititia)
Family: Rosaceae
Prunus domestica subsp. insititia.
(Hailsham, Downash, September 2009)
In the British Isles the Bullaces we find in our hedgerows include both feral, self-sown, semi-wild types, and a wide range of survivors from cottage gardens or long forgotten estates (see separate entry on Feral Plums; also Prunus insititia in (Plants For A Future [PFAF] database). In old orchards we also encounter a range of varieties still under cultivation, including Damsons. The Bullace is often sparsely spiny and has juicy fruits resembling small, symmetrical plums. They range from purple-black through red and yellow to off-white, and are often mottled with rust-reds. They come with a range of plum flavours and are generally fairly sweet. The various colours of the fruits seem to be linked to different flavours (see descriptions in Botu et al. 2012). Today Damsons are generally regarded as a special, deliciously tangy-flavoured form of Bullace, typically with purple-black, elongated fruits, although a cultivated variety of Bullace with yellow fruits was apparently sold in 1860s London under the name ‘White Damson’ (Hogg 1866). Bullaces (including Damsons) typically ripen in high summer, mainly in August.

Distinguishing Bullace from Blackthorn  
Feral forms of Bullace can be distinguished from the various forms of Blackthorn (Prunus spinosa; see entry on Blackthorn) using the following features: 1) Bullaces have relatively few spines and sometimes none at all, whereas Blackthorn is always very spiny; 2) Bullace flowers and fruits occur in clusters on dwarf side-branches, while those of Blackthorn usually grow directly from the parent twigs, either singly or crowded together—in both cases the pedicils (the flower/fruit-stalks) are usually 4-8 mm; 3) Bullace pedicels are conspicuously downy when young, while in Blackthorn they are hairless or rarely have a few sparse hairs); 4) the flowers of Bullace are larger (petals 7-12 mm long, compared with the 5-8 mm petals in Blackthorn); 5) the fruits range from spherical to oblong, and they come in a range of colours—in contrast, the fruits of Blackthorn (Sloes) are always spherical and always black (for examples of the range of fruit morphologies see Botu et al. 2012; Faust 2011: figure 1); and 6) although fully ripe Bullace fruits are sometimes sour, they are rarely intensely astringent like Sloes.

Distinguishing Bullace from feral forms of the true plum   
Feral forms of Bullace can be distinguished from feral plums (Prunus domestica; see entry on Feral Plums) using the following features: 1) Bullace pedicels (flower stalks) are downy, while those of plums are hairless or have relatively few sparse hairs; 2) Bullace fruits range from 15-25 mm long, while plums range from 20-80 mm and tend to be more obviously lopsided than Bullace fruits; 3) in most Bullaces the flesh adheres to the stone (the cultivated ‘Royal Bullace’ is apparently an exception[i]), whereas in ripe plums the flesh separates cleanly from the stone; and 4) the stones of most Bullaces are relatively rounded and swollen-looking, have a rough surface and a blunt edge—in contrast, the stones of true plums are fairly flat, have a relatively smooth surface and a sharp edge.

Distinguishing Bullace from feral forms of Cherry Plum  
Both Bullace and Cherry Plum (Prunus cerasifera; see entry on Cherry Plum; see also Faust 2011: 145-146) are about the same size and both come in a range of colours. However, Bullace fruits grow in clusters, have short pedicels (c. 4-8 (-10) mm), sit upright on these short stalks and, when young, the pedicels are furry. By contrast, Cherry Plums grow singly on relatively long pedicels (c.15 mm), they are pendulous, and the pedicels in British forms (but not in some wild continental and near eastern forms) are hairless.


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.

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]

Grieve, M. 1992. A Modern Herbal. 3rd Edition. Edited and introduced by Mrs C.F. Leyel. Tiger Books International, London

Hogg, R. 1866. The fruit manual: containing the descriptions, synonymes and classification of the fruits and fruit trees of Great Britain, with selected lists of the best varieties. 3rd Edition. Journal of Horticulture and Cottage Gardener Office, London.

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

[i] Grieve (1992: 143) describes the Royal Bullace: “Fruit large, 11/4 inch in diameter. Skin bright grass-green, mottled with red on the side next to the sun and becoming yellowish-green as it ripens, with a thin, grey bloom on the surface. Flesh green, separating from the stone, briskly flavoured with sufficient sweetness to make it an agreeable late fruit. Ripe in early October.”

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