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Cherry plum – Prunus cerasifera, near Warrior Square Station St Leonards-on-Sea

Plum perfect

Tree correspondent Joan Taylor-Rowan can’t resist the allure of the cherry plum – the first of the Prunus varieties to flower in spring. 

Latin name: Prunus cerasifera
Common name: Cherry plum, Myrobalan plum
Location: There is a superb example on the south side of St Leonards Warrior Square station behind railings, but they are common in parks too.

There is nothing that lifts the spirits  more at the tail end of winter, than the sight of a tree in blossom. On a sunny day it looks as if a billowing cloud has become snagged on the branches.  I was stopped in my tracks by such a tree when walking down the curving path that links London Road to Warrior Square station in St Leonards.  It is a giant – at least 12m in spread and 5m high and is protected by railings. I wondered if it was a winter-flowering cherry but tree expert Dr Owen Johnson put me right – it  is a Prunus cerasifera – the myrobalan plum or cherry plum.

Despite its name it is not related to the cherry at all, but is an ancestor of the domesticated plum. Thought to be from central Asia it has been cultivated in Britain since at least the 16th century and is now naturalized and behaves like a wild tree. It’s often mistaken for a blackthorn (Sloe) Prunus spinosa, but the cherry plum flowers from late February to March whereas the blackthorn doesn’t start flowering until at least a month later. Blackthorn is spiny, hence “spinosa”, whereas the cherry plum has only very occasional spines. Chris Petts, one of the station’s volunteer gardeners  puts the gorgeous specimen at Warrior Square station at more than 40 years old, and thinks it’s probably never been pruned. One of the lower branches has grown so big it has formed an elbow that’s seems to have re-rooted into the earth.

Five petalled flower of the cherry plum

A broadleaf deciduous tree, the cherry plum is one of the first to flower in spring. The five-petalled white flowers are just a couple of centimetres across with a burst of yellow-topped stamens in the centre.

The leaves, when they arrive are small and glossy – almond shaped with a fine downy under-surface. Cherry plum is considered one of the top ten plants for bees because it provides this vital early food supply. Birds will munch the buds and even the petals. Squirrels love the blossoms too – I have seen them from my window, carrying armfuls as if they are preparing for some grand party.

Mostly this tree is valued for hedging, windbreaks and for its ornamental value – one of the most common cultivars of cerasifera, is the black cherry plum Prunus cerasifera ‘nigra’.

Prunus cerasifera ‘nigra’ – black cherry plum.

It has pink flowers and gorgeous dark burgundy leaves, and is a welcome sight in parks and city streets.

The cherry plum also produces edible fruits – which range in colour from yellow to dark red. They spoil quickly and are smaller than the domesticated varieties so tend to be overlooked. You’re more likely to get a crop if there are other plum trees around, but Chris Petts told me that a few years ago the Warrior Square station tree fruited heavily and he was able to pick bucketloads. Although the fruits are edible straight from the tree, they can be a little sour, but they make great jams, puddings and syrups. They are an essential ingredient in the cuisine of the country of Georgia where they are used to produce tkemali sauce (see the recipe below), as well as a number of popular dishes, such as kharcho soup and chakapuli stew. Birds love these delicious little fruits too, which appear in July and August, a little earlier than other stone fruits.

Cherry plum has medicinal properties- photo by Katherine Hanlon – Unsplash

The cherry plums are well worth the effort of harvesting as they contain many health-giving properties. The yellow variety is high in beta carotene which is good for vision.  The redder varieties are rich in antioxidants. They also contain potassium and vitamin C. However, cherry plums like all plums, contain hydrogen cyanide – mostly in the stones, and to a lesser degree in the leaves and bark. For humans, the amounts are harmless but it is still best to avoid eating the stones. However, for dogs, the small amounts can be fatal – so keep dogs away from plum trees, including the cherry plum.

Dr Edward Bach the famous alternative health practitioner considered the cherry plum to be vital in treating a particular type of fear…the fear of losing control and doing something dreadful and acting irrationally. A distillation made from the cherry plum, was designed to cool anger and help regain control over thoughts and actions – sadly it may be a little too late to offer some to Putin. It’s also one of the five ingredients in Dr Bach’s famous Rescue Remedy.

The delicate blossom of this beautiful tree, like other blossom, flourishes briefly before being scattered by a stiff breeze or tattered by heavy rains, and that is part of their poignancy, speaking as they do of the impermanence of all that we take for granted. Definitely something to be admired and appreciated in these troubled times.

The impermanence of beauty

Wild Plum Sauce (Tkemali) Recipe – Sunset Magazine

Ingredients
1 pound of cherry plums (or domestic if you can’t get the others)
1/2 star anise pod
1 teaspoon fennel seeds
1 tablespoon roughly chopped mint leaves
1 tablespoon roughly chopped coriander leaves
2 large garlic cloves, minced
About 1 1/2 tsp. salt
1/2 teaspoon red chilli flakes, or more if mild
Sugar (optional)

How to Make It
Wash and stem plums, put in a small pot, and add enough water to just cover plums. Bring to a boil. If plums are softened, remove from heat; if not, cover and simmer until soft, 10 to 15 minutes. Grind star anise with fennel seeds in a spice grinder or clean coffee grinder. Strain plums into a bowl; reserve liquid. Set strainer of plums over pot. With a wooden spoon or gloved hand, firmly press plums through strainer into pot (discard pits). The strained plums should have the texture of thin tomato soup; stir in some plum-cooking water if needed.

Add remaining ingredients (except sugar) and simmer over medium heat, uncovered, stirring occasionally, until flavours have melded and sauce is as thick as ketchup, about 30 minutes. Season with more salt to taste, along with a spoonful of sugar if you like.

Make ahead:
Sauce will last up to 2 days if chilled; if frozen, up to 4 months.

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Posted 23:21 Sunday, Mar 6, 2022 In: Green Times

Also in: Green Times

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