There are some fragments of culture that are tiny – perhaps shared only across a few people. My family, like many families, has a culture fragment. It’s a book – a barely known domestic novel written in the eve of WWII by R.L. Stevenson’s first-cousin-once-removed, D.E. Stevenson about a woman who wrote novels. It’s called Miss Buncle’s Book and everyone in my family of birth has read it – multiple times. We used to hunt for copies of it (it was out of print) every time we went up to Canada, and finally over years we each got a copy. Mine is a fourth edition, and has an inscription on the front cover: “Mrs. F.B. Pemberton, from Laura, Jan 1937”. That same lady had a bookplate with the family motto on the other side, “Virtutate et Labore”, with a boar’s head.
Old books are awesome. I digress.
In Miss Buncle’s Book, she accuses her neighbor of using pectin to get her damson jam to set. (This is, apparently, a crime. Here in the 21st century, before it became a hipster past-time, making jam at all was so ridiculously archaic that making it without pectin sounds ridiculous!) I’ve read this book probably 20 times, and this sentence always stuck out to me. And when I started getting more serious in the jam making and farmer’s market attending, I began asking the farmers if they had any damson plums. Plum jams are some of my favorite jams, and a bit of research had revealed that damsons are, in fact, a favorite plum for preserving.
But across all the farm shares, the farmer’s markets and the produce stands … no one had damson plums. No one had even heard of them. I badgered my farmer (Farmer Dave) to plant some for me. He politely declined.
What was previously a desultory inquiry became a quest. I wrote about my jam tendencies in 2011 and my adoring readership confirmed that damson plum jam was indeed the cat’s meow.
Finally, in 2012, I bought a fruiting sized tree for my tiny back yard, bound and determined to get my damson plums one way or another. I started thinking of recipes I could use the plums for. I’d make some prunes for pork and prune stew. Maybe a plum pudding? Plum wine? Of course, I’d make 3 or 4 batches of jam with all the plums. Perhaps I’d give the rest to neighbors, or finally teach my family to enjoy the fruit right off the tree. I know one tree an produce quite a volume of fruit, and my recipes were ready.
But that year came and went with nary a plum. And the next year. And the next year. I pruned. I watered. I didn’t water in order to stress it out. I didn’t prune. I watched in horror as winter moth caterpillers denuded my tree and every tree in the vicinity. Two years there were five blossoms – the first time I could finally figure out exactly when the tree was supposed to flower. Last year, every stone fruit in all New England was devastated by a late, hard freeze. I’ve watched it with a keen, worried eye as I saw the buds swelling this year, praying hard that no late chill would shrivel the blooms off my tree. I wondered if I could justify a smudge pot for my tiny, one-tree orchard. I actually tried to cover it in a tarp for the last really cold snap. (News flash: it’s too big.)
I’ve joked that I’ll never get a plum off my tree. We plan on owning this house for another 20 years, and I’ve sometimes had a horrible feeling I’ll go all 20 of those years damsonless – the tree growing and thriving and somehow falling down on it’s ONE DUTY of providing me with enough plums to make a batch of jam. Just one! Just once!
It’s Easter weekend. It’s the time when we have hope that things which look hopeless and beyond saving actually are not. And this year, for the first time ever, my plum tree is prolifically blooming. There are pollinators of all sorts whirling in a buzzing cloud around it. Green leaves and white blossoms blaze against a blue sky. We still need to get through the winter moth caterpillars, the summer and the harvest season. I have many steps to go between these virginal blossoms and the effulgent plums whose harvest is my great desire.
But there is hope. And I will probably use pectin.
PS – My name comes from another D.E. Stevenson book, “Crooked Adam”!
PPS – In looking up links for this article, I found this not-reassuring poem:
“He who plants plums
Plants for his sons.
He who plants damsons
Plants for his grandsons.”
PPPS – The site I bought it from just says it’s a “Blue Damson”. I hope that means it’s really a:
‘Shropshire Prune’ (syn. ‘Prune Damson’, ‘Long Damson’, ‘Damascene’, ‘Westmoreland Damson’, ‘Cheshire Damson’) is a very old variety; its blue-purple, ovoid fruit has a distinctively “full rich astringent” flavour considered superior to other damsons, and it was thought particularly suitable for canning. Hogg states that this was the variety that became specifically associated with the old name “damascene”. The local types often known as the “Westmoreland Damson” and “Cheshire Damson” are described as synonymous with the Shropshire Prune by the horticulturalist Harold Taylor and others. The Shropshire was also the best-known variety of damson in the United States.