Off foraging, back soon

Work (and blogging) in the forest garden has had to take a back seat for a while as I’ve been overwhelmed by the amount of fruit and fungi to be picked out and about. There’s a close relationship between foraging and forest gardening in any case: a lot of the plants I grow in my allotment are ones that I could forage from the wild, given an infinite time and travel budget. Off the top of my head, the native wild plants growing in my forest garden include hogweed, sweet cicely, wild garlic, dittander, garlic mustard, sea beet, Scots lovage, buck’s horn plantain, common and musk mallows, Babington’s leek, Good King Henry, pignut, wild strawberry, various sorrels and wood violet. Oh yes, and raspberries, currants and small-leaved lime. A meal containing all of these would involve a week-long expedition taking in woods, heaths and coast – or five minutes in my allotment.

With every wild plant I have to weigh up whether or not it is worth giving it a place in the forest garden. Pluses are given for plants that I like and that are particularly productive. Minuses are for being too ‘spready’ or too big or for attacking me when I’m minding my own business, as with nettle. There is also the question of whether I have ready access to the plant on my foraging rounds. All these considerations are fairly individual, so the decision will be different for each person. I’m very much given to changing my mind: the latest one that I’m reconsidering is nettle, after talking to Fi Martynoga of the Scottish Wild Harvests Association, who was serving up out-of-season nettle brose at Wooplaw Community Woodland‘s 25th-anniversary bash. Fi has a patch of nettles is her garden that she cuts down several times a year to keep a steady supply of fresh new growth.

One species I’m still definitely leaving for wild foraging is the bramble (Rubus fruticosus agg.), a thorny, rumbustious plant that loves to romp around an area, pining dreadfully if it is restricted. I once saw some speeded-up footage of bramble growth on a David Attenborough programme. The briars thrashed around like groping hands; then, finding a purchase with their thorns, they surged forward. Take a look on YouTube and you’ll see why I don’t want them in my garden! We’ve just had the first flush of blackberries in Aberdeen. They are always the nicest so we’ve frozen what we didn’t eat and will make jam with a later batch.

cherry plum

Another fruit I have been picking, literally by the bucketload, is Prunus cerasifera, the cherry plum or myrobalan/mirabelle. I’ve raved about cherry plum before but well, I’m going to do it again. It is a mystery to me how neglected mirabelles are, seeing as how they produce curtains of tasty, juicy fruit and never suffer any disease problems that I have seen. True, any given cherry plum tree can produce fruits that are small, tasteless, sparse, unreliable, perishable or quick to fall from the tree, but equally I have found trees that carry fruit that is large, tasty and lasting, ones which crop reliably and ones which don’t drop their fruit at the first breath of wind. I’m sure it can’t be beyond the efforts of plant breeders to combine all these characteristics in one tree. Indeed there are some named varieties of P. cerasifera, available in the UK from Orange Pippin Trees. Has anyone out there had any experience with any of them?

There is an impromptu breeding experiment going on on a bank near my house, where there are perhaps a hundred cherry plum trees, probably planted with their blossom in mind more than their fruit. Their qualities vary wildly but some are very good indeed. I discovered one this year that has incredibly sweet fruits, even when still partly green. It is yielding so heavily that I picked a bucketful in less than half an hour. Right next to it is a purple variety that has proven itself to be an excellent keeper. I have been growing on seeds from the best varieties that I have picked for a few years now, so if anyone has a field that they aren’t using and would like to do a cherry plum trial orchard, I’m waiting to hear from you.

To add to the plum orgy clearly going on in these parts, cherry plums have evidently been crossing with my Japanese plum tree, Prunus salicina. I’ve been growing on seeds from it and some of them obviously have a variety of cerasifera called Atropurpurea as their pollen parent. Atropurpurea has been bred for deep purple bark and fruit and pink flowers and is unmistakeable. It is a rubbish fruiter unfortunately, but it suggests that other cherry plums will have crossed with the Japanese one too. Since the domestic plum arose as a cross between P. cerasifera and P. spinosa, the native sloe, who knows what will result?

Japanese plums ripening on a window sill

Japanese plums

Japanese plums

I harvested my favourite fruit today – Japanese plum (Prunus salicina) They look like the sort of plum you would get in the shops, with one subtle difference – they have flavour! Not just any old flavour, but the richest, most complex flavour I have ever come across in a plum. Then there’s the way they just sort of dissolve in the mouth… (Since first writing this, I have discovered that Japanese plums in fact are the kind that you usually see in the shops, so the difference is presumably down to the fact that shop-bought ones are picked unripe for storage and transport but if you have your own tree you can pick them when they are at their glorious best.)

Nor are the virtues of Japanese plums limited to eating raw. They are surprisingly good cooked in savoury dishes: they are great frittered and the plum stir-fry season is one of the keenly awaited annual culinary milestones in my household. They also make an exceptionally good fruit leather. I only started experimenting with fruit leathers in 2015, but from my results so far, Japanese plums make the best, either on their own or in mixes with other fruit. The best of all was perhaps a pure Japanese plum leather with a bit of ginger added. I also tried cutting them into thin strip and drying them. The result was very tasty and has stored well. On the other hand, Japanese plum jam is only okay – I think that tarter plums such as cherry plums generally make better jams.

Their all round deliciousness isn’t lost on the local wildlife and the big hazard with Japanese plums is that the birds and wasps will get them before you do. Fortunately, they ripen up well on the window sill if you pick them a few days early and that is what I generally do.

Japanese plums haven’t always been easy to get hold of in the UK, but I have been pointed to http://www.gb-online.co.uk/prestashop/category.php?id_category=124 as a supplier of them (and much else besides) – thanks Waheed. I got mine from a supplier that has now ceased to exist, so I have been trying to propagate it myself. It grows quite strongly from its large seed, so I have got a number of seedling trees now growing on, but I have no idea whether it will breed true and with seedlings I might have to wait a while to find out. Fortunately, you can also propagate plums by layering: you bend a branch down to the ground, cut a section away from the underside where it meets the ground until it is thin enough to bend upwards without breaking and then peg it into the ground with the part beyond the cut vertical. Within a year or so it will have a good root system and you can cut it away from the parent tree, a little cloned Dolly the Plum.

I’d be intrigued to know why this species isn’t more popular in Britain. Do I have an unusually nice or hardy one? Has anyone else tried it? Please post a reply if you have.