Greengages, superbly flavoursome

Greengages, photo by Lars Blankers on Unsplash

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.

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.

How to prune greengages

A good way of constructing a greengage tree is to remove the central leader and keep the lateral branches, creating a bowl structure that allows light to reach all parts of the tree. The tree reacts to this by cropping on all parts of the branches, not just in the centre. As for all plums and greengages, pruning should not be done in winter, which would increase the risk of bacterial canker and silver leaf. Pruning should be done when the tree is in full leaf. Watch a video tutorial about the open-centre greengage tree.

This system avoids two of the problems typical of greengages: they can become very large trees which take up a lot of space and are hard to furnish, and they have the tendency to create a lot of branches without much “furnishing”, in other words, young cropping wood. Once the structure has been created, the tree can be kept under control by pruning after blossom, cutting back the new vertical shoots to one-bud length. This procedure stimulates the production of new shoots on the older wood. You can continue throughout the growing season – while the tree has leaves. Watch a video on how to prune a greengage tree.

In this way you can control the size of the tree, making it easier to deal with aphids or other pests.

In any case, give the tree enough room, and give it a pollinating companion. Read an article on plum, greengage and damson pollination, with a pollination compatibility chart.

How to thin greengages

Greengages should be thinned to avoid the possibility of not getting a crop next year. Just remove the fruits so that they are separate and about 3-4 inches apart. Choose smaller or damaged greengages to remove wherever possible. Watch a video on how to thin a greengage tree.

Why are greengages poor croppers?

One of the reasons that greengages are not the easiest crop to grow is due to their specific pollination characteristics. In fact, unlike apples and pears, greengages are bad at self-pollination. They need bees to do the job for them. So the air temperature during blossom is of fundamental importance. If the temperature is below 10°C at blossom, the bees stay in their hives and greengages are not pollinated. Greengages differ to plums such as Victoria and Oullins Golden Gage because the latter set even when temperatures are lower.

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