Greengages, superbly flavoursome
Many people all over the world know the plum and consider these fruits nice to eat when mature and freshly picked. However, mention the word “greengage” and most people today have no idea of what you are talking about. And yet, as a type of plum, it is so delicate and flavoursome that it is rightly considered as the tastiest of all the tree fruits.
Let us compare the greengage with other fruits grown in the moderate climate zone. In a ranking of soft fruits, many would consider the raspberry to be at the top. Of all the fruits grown on trees, the greengage is rightly considered as unsurpassed in delicacy and flavour, when freshly picked and fully mature . So why are these trees and their fruits not better known? Why are these fruits, when in season, not more regularly available in modern supermarkets? In France and Italy it is more widely available on street markets when in season, but not in supermarket outlets.
In the UK, this special plum is known as a Greengage. If you spoke to people in Holland, for example, about this fruit, they wouldn’t know what you are talking about!
There are several reasons for this relative obscurity. One of the reasons is that this particular group of plums is only commercially successful for a very small band of dedicated fruit growers. However if grown with plenty of TLC and dedication in the garden, the fruits are so special they need to be reserved for your own family and only the best of friends. If the crop is heavy, which is never the case 3 years in a row, it makes the most tasty of all jams.
Because of the quality of these fruits and my many years of experience of trying to grow these fruits, I consider it worthwhile to record my findings along with some historical background for these wonderful plums. The reader may want to skip various sections of this report. For that reason I will group the various details in a series of posts, as follows:
1) Historical background,
2) The most suitable sites for these plums,
3) Most suitable soils and their maintenance,
4) The different varieties available,
5) The essentials of growing these varieties,
6) The pruning needs of these plums,
7) Successful control of the pests and diseases.
The historical background of the greengage
Many people think that the greengage is a real English type of fruit. Often people are puzzled why it is so difficult to grow regular crops of greengages. The real reason is that the home of this delicious fruit variety was originally in the country of Armenia. Smallholdings there often had some of these trees, and the fruit was used simply to meet the families’ needs. But already by the 15th century these fruits were sold – often dried, so they would keep longer – to passing traders en route to the West to sell their silk fabrics. In addition to greengages, fruits such as dates, nuts and almonds were also sold.
This trading route was known as the Silk Road, connecting China, Central Asia, the Balkans, including Georgia and Armenia, to the West of Europe.
In this way, the greengage arrived in Greece around 1500, Italy around 1600, and France in about 1700. During the reign of King Francis I, in the 18th century, the fruits were introduced to Claude, the queen. She was delighted with these small, delicious fruits, and they became known as the Reine Claude variety. An English nobleman named Sir Thomas Gage, visiting France at that time, was equally delighted with the flavour of these fruits. So he introduced the fruits to England and renamed them after himself. The name stuck and so today this type of fruit, green to golden in colour, is still known in the UK as the “GREEN GAGE”.
So why are these little fruits so outstanding, flavour-wise? In my view, this is directly related to where these types of fruit were developed in ancient times. Armenia, which is situated between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea, has an ideal fruit-growing climate, with cold winters and warm dry summers. The particular sweetness of the fruit, now firmly established in the greengage’s genetic make-up, is a result of adaptation to the warm and dry summer climatic conditions.
Although fruit tree grafting was already practiced as early as the eighth and ninth centuries, the reproduction of the greengage type of plum took place by simply planting the stones of these fruits. It is for this reason that the true greengage has not lost its delicate sweetness, unrivalled by any other fruit. But the successful growing of greengages in England is a real challenge.