prune (French), Pflaume (German), ciruela (Spanish), ameixa (Portugese), susina/prugna (Italian), pruim (Dutch), blomme (Danish), plommon (Swedish), plomme (Norwegian), luumu (Finnish), sliva (Russian/Bulgarian), sliwka (Polish), szilv (Hungarian), sljiva (Serbo-Croat), pruna (Romanian), damaskino (Greek), li zi (Chinese), sumomo (Japanese), prém (Indonesian)
Another member of the Rose family, plums now have thousands of varieties all differing in size, shape, and flavor.
All originated from three main types: European, Japanese, and Western Asian.
During the Middle Ages, the word “plum” virtually meant any dried fruit. This usage is still seen in the “plum puddings” and “plum cakes”. Deciding what is a plum and what is not is no easy matter.
For example, bullaces,
are all plums in a general sense, although usually called by their own names.
Bullace, black bullace, white bullace (Prunus instititia – Family Rosaceae) grow wild in Europe. A bullace is a small round plum and generally has a bluish-purple skin, with a very strong acidy flesh. The so-called “white” bullaces are pale greenish-yellow. Bullaces can be found throughout Europe in late autumn, growing in thorny hedgerows long after other wild fruits are finished. Because of their extreme tartness, bullaces are not eaten raw, but do make very good jams and other preserves.
Mirabelle plum is a French specialty and closely allied to the damson and bullace. It is usually classified as a variety of P. instititia, although some regard it as a hybrid of P. cerasifera and P. domestica. The variety known as Mirabelle de Nancy is believed to have come from the East in the 15th century to France, where it is still highly rated. The Mirabelle de Metz was first recorded in 1675.
Damson plum (P. instititia var. syriaca) prune de Damas (French), Dämaszenerpflaume (German), susina di Damasco/prugna damaschina (Italian), ciruela damascena (Spanish), kræge/damascenerblomme (Danish), krikon (Swedish), damaskonluumu (Finnish), chernosliv (Russian), sliwka damaszka (Polish), bardaklija/damaska sljiva (Serbo-Croat), damaskine (Greek)
Damson is a small plum-like fruit believed to have derived from the bullace. It is considered to be a product of the Near East, even in Roman times, and takes its name from Damascus. It has a deep, blue-black skin with an attractive bloom. The flavor is very strong and tart, making it more suitable for cooking than eating raw. Once sweetened and cooked, the Damson develops a pleasantly spicy flavour. An English tradition is damson cheese, which is similar to quince cheese. Damson cheese is a very thick fruit pulp boiled with sugar to make a solid jam which can then be eaten with breads. The cheese is an acquired taste as it must be aged for several months before eaten. The Damson usually grow wild in hedgerows, but it is also commercially available.
Green Gage (Prunus insititia) is the English name for a group of especially good plums derived from the bullace. They usually have green skins that are sometimes tinged with yellow or rose pink which turn golden as the fruit ripens. There are many varieties of green gages but all have firm flesh and a delicious honeyed flavor. Transparent gages have fine translucent flesh and if held up to a light, the shape of the stone can clearly be seen. These golden gages have a particularly sweet flavor.
The Green Gage was named after Sir Thomas Gage, who received stocks from his brother in France early in the 18th century. This gesture was made by the gardener who discovered that the labels on the trees were lost and he had to give them a suitable name – no doubt, a wise employee. Wild green gages from Asia Minor were probably introduced into Britain by the Romans, but disappeared from cultivation until Sir Thomas Gage brought them from France. In France, they are known as Reine-Claude named after the wife of Francois I, who reigned from 1494-1547. The original type is thought to have come from Armenia.
In 1790, William Prince planted the pits of twenty-five quarts of Green Gage plums, which produced trees yielding fruits of every colour. Out of them came the Imperial Gage, which was later taken to England under the name of Denniston’s Superb. Also produced were the Red Gage, Prince’s Gage, and the Washington plum. In 1828, the Prince Nursery offered for sale 140 different kinds of plums. This nursery alone is credited with doing more than any other for the advancement of plum-growing in America.
The fruits of P. cerasifera may be called cherry plums or myrobalans (emblics).
Wild plums were first cultivated by the Assyrians over 2,000 years ago, and then adopted by the Romans, who hybridized them. Pliny wrote of the huge numbers of cross-breeds available.
The Chinese also cultivated plums early and developed the species P. salicina, the Japanese plum.
It first came to the notice of western botanists who found it growing in Japan, and thus the association in the name.
It was the Crusaders who are credited with taking the plum to Europe, where it was first cultivated in the gardens of medieval monasteries in England. About 1369, Chaucer described one such garden with its “ploumes” and “bulaces”. In addition, several varieties of plum are indigenous to North America, but European settlers also brought other varieties with them. Today, plums are grown in virtually every temperate climate of the world.
Plums are high in sugar; therefore, they have no starch. Consequently, they will not become sweeter after being picked; but their pectic enzymes will dissolve some of the pectin, causing them to soften. This action can be halted with refrigeration.
Plums have only moderate amounts of soluble gums and pectins in the flesh, as well as small amounts of cellulose and the noncarbohydrate food fiber lignin in the skin. Although plums are a good source of vitamins A and C and potassium, they have very little protein and only a trace of fat, and they do contain more antioxidants than any other fruit.
There are over 2,000 varieties of plum, ripening at different times throughout the summer and autumn; but only a dozen or so are available commercially.
Japanese varieties are large, round, and juicy. They can be purplish-red with orange flesh or orangey-yellow with yellow flesh.
Generally, dark-colored plums have bitter skins, while the red and yellow varieties tend to be sweeter. Most dessert plums can be cooked, as well as eaten raw. They can also be canned or frozen.
The colour of the fruit can vary from blue-black to purple to red, green, and yellow. Plums generally have a long season, with one variety or another being available all year round.
All plums have smooth skins and juicy, acidic flesh. Dessert plums are usually larger than cooking plums, and can be up to four inches in length. They are sweet and very juicy. Cooking plums are drier with a tart flesh, making them ideal for pies or jam.
Dessert plums include the following: Denniston’s Superb,
which is the most prolific of all the dessert plums. Victorias were first cultivated in 1840 from a stray seedling found in Sussex, England. Since then, these large oval, reddish-yellow fruits have found their way round the world, and are good raw or cooked.
Cooking plums include the following:
Beach plums (Prunus americana sp) is a wild relative of the cultivated plum. It is an American native which grows profusely along the sandy shores of New England. Its thick white blossoms are to be seen in May; and, although highly prized, the bushes fruit only sporadically, and all efforts to cultivate them have failed. The fruits have a sour flavour and are used mainly in jams, a New England specialty.
Cherry plums or mirabelles,
Quetsch (Zwetschen or Svetsch),
Autumn Rose, Avalon,
Circinella, Queen Rosa,
The Cherry Plum, or Myrobalan,
occurs in various forms, being particularly associated with the region of the Caucasus.
The finest variety of prune plums is the d’Agen,
grown in France and California. These are sold complete with stones, and must be soaked overnight before being cooked. This is the most famous prune plum and was named after a town in Aquitaine in the south west of France, which lies on the edge of the prune region rather than the center of it. This is because the Canal du Midi passes through the town of d’Agen and served as the main port for dispatching them to markets. It was this variety that was taken to California in the 19th century, where production has now become so great that it dominates the market, including those sold in France.
Warning: Plums contain large amounts of serotonin. Eating them seventy-two hours before a carcinoid tumor test can create a false-positive result. Carcinoid tumors sometimes arise from tissues of the endocrine or gastrointestinal systems and secrete serotonin, a chemical that causes blood vessels to expand or contract. Because serotonin is excreted in the urine, these tumors are diagnosed by measuring the serotonin levels in the urine, and eating plums before such a test can indicate tumors when in fact none are present. (Other foods rich in serotonin include avocados, bananas, eggplant, pineapple, tomatoes, and walnuts. These also should be avoided before undergoing such a test.)
are dried purple or red plums. Plums are turned into prunes either by leaving them on the tree to dry naturally or by drying them in a low oven. The word has been used since medieval times to mean both the dried and fresh fruit, thus creating confusion when reading ancient writings describing this fruit.
The special characteristic of the best prune plums is that of having a very high sugar content which allows them to dry in the sun without fermenting. Today, that process is speeded up by drying machines.
These plums must also have a free or easily detached stone, something which is not common among plum varieties. Such plums also have a higher nutritional content than other plums.
It takes approximately three pounds of fresh plums to produce one pound of prunes, the loss being entirely from the removal of water, which also concentrates the sugar and nutrients.
During the drying process, prunes turn completely black as the result of enzyme action. Deemed normal in plums, it would be unacceptable in any other fruit.
Despite being ‘dried’, prunes remain moist and succulent. The explanation for this is that their initial moisture content is reduced to 23% to ensure that they will keep satisfactorily in storage and then restored to a higher level (29% for pruneaux sacs and up to 35% for demi-sacs) before being shipped to markets. This “rehydration” is necessary if they are to have the attractive softness and sheen consumers have come to expect.
Some dried fruits, when they are reconstituted, have the unmistakable resemblance to the original fruit. This is not so with prunes. Just as raisins differ from grapes, so it is with prunes and plums.
Ounce for ounce, prunes are higher in fiber than dried beans. Their sugar content is also substantial, with 30% of its weight consisting of glucose, 15% fructose, and 2% sucrose.
Prunes are an excellent source of vitamins A and B, iron, and potassium. Eating prunes with a food high in Vitamin C significantly raises the absorption level of the iron found in prunes as it is able to change the ferric form, found naturally in the fruit, to ferrous form of iron, which the body is better able to absorb.
Prunes and prune juice are good sources of potassium; and ounce for ounce, uncooked dried prunes have four times as much potassium as fresh oranges; and the juice has 30% more than fresh orange juice.
Often associated with the elderly and their constipation problems, prunes do have a laxative effect that is much easier on the body than any medication, and just as effective. Since prune juice is equally effective, but lacking in fiber, some food chemists suggest that another constituent other than fiber is the real reason they are so effective as a laxative.
Prunes contain an unidentified derivative of the organic chemical isatin, which is related to another natural substance called biscodyl, the active ingredient in some over-the-counter laxative preparations. Biscodyl is a contact laxative that induces the secretion of fluid in the bowel and stimulates contractions of the intestines to push waste through the colon more quickly and efficiently.
Although the prunes of d’Agen are thought to be the best, other plums, including the following, also rank high:
is dried whole to become a kind of prune called ‘brignole’, also named after a town (Brignoles), where it is grown extensively. If the same plum is pitted, dried in the sun, and flattened, it becomes a ‘pistole’.
St. Catherine plum is the fruit used for producing the famous pruneaux de Tours, which is also called ‘pruneaux fleuris’ because of a whitish bloom caused by crystallization of sugar.
Carlsbad plum is a large prune.
Quetsch plum is a small plum from Central Europe, also made into prunes.
Governor’s plum, Botoko plum, Ramontochi, Batoko-plum (Flacourtia indica – Family Flacourtiaceae)
The Governor’s plum is a plum-shaped fruit of Indian origin, but it also grows in tropical Africa. It is most popular in the West Indies and can be found in such markets in Europe and the US. The small purple fruits are formed in late summer and develop to about the size of marbles. They are the tropical equivalent of the damsons and like them, the Governor’s plum also has enough pectin to make good jams and jellies.
Jamaican plum, hoy/hog plums, golden apple, limbu, mombin
This fruit is not a plum, but belongs to the same family as the mango, and grows in the West Indies, Central and South America, South-East Asia, and India. The golden yellow to deep red and purple fruits are small, a little over an inch long. They grow several to a branch, and, like mangoes, have soft skin and contain a large stone. The firm yellow flesh is juicy and fragrantly sweet, more like a pineapple or an apple than a mango. The distinctive flavour has a slightly acidic tang. These fruits are fragile and do not travel well, but they are sometimes available in Indian markets. Jamaican plums can be eaten raw, sweetened and served with other fruits, poached, pickled, or made into jams and jellies. They also are added to such dishes as curries.
Sloe (Prunus spinos – Family Rosaceae)
prunelle (French), Schlebe (German), prugnola/pruna selvatica (Italian), endrino (Spanish), abrunbo (Portugese), slaen (Danish), slape (Norweigian), slanbär/slan (Swedish), oratuomi (Finnish), sliwa tarnina (Polish), trnjina/gloginja (Serbo-Croat), porumbar/tîrn (Romanian), trunka (Bulgarian), (agrio) koromelo (Greek), sleedoornpruim (Flemish)
Sloe is the tiny plum-like fruit of the blackthorn, a thorny shrub which grows wild throughout Europe and western Asia, and hence the botanical name which means “spiny plum”. It is likely the only plum species native to Britain.
Its blue-black skin has a slight bloom, and the flesh is highly astringent; and, therefore, it cannot be eaten raw. Sloes ripen late and can be picked from hedgerows in autumn, but they only become edible after the first frosts. They can be made into various preserves, but their one claim to fame is being the principle ingredient of an alcoholic beverage.
Sloes, preserved in vinegar, are a good imitation of umeboshi, the Japanese salted and dried fruit which is more like an apricot than a plum. Umbeboshi is one of the oldest and most important preserved foods in Japan.