The Cottage Smallholder

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Foraging for hedgerow fruit. How to identify wild (cherry) plums, bullaces and wild damsons

hedgerow fruitFinally I got fed up with the bully at work.

I threw down my brush, jumped into Jalopy and we rumbled towards my old hedgerow fruit hunting grounds. I was out for lunch half an hour early but what the heck. I can make up the time at the end of the day when the bully has gone home.

I had a suspicion that things were not right hedgerow-wise. I pulled up beside my main hunting ground, grabbed an old carrier bag and discovered that the trees were bare. Industrial hedge trimmers had hacked the branches. I gazed dismayed at yards of naked bare twigs. I scrambled into the woods and looked up. Nothing, apart from a handful of unripe fly infested fruit. Jalopy and I motored to the secret spot where I normally find plump juicy bullaces. It took me a few minutes to find some. They were tiny, only a few ripening, at least a month early.

Jalopy nosed towards the secondary hunting stretch. The same ripped branches. Hedge trimmer had visited shortly before.

Two years ago I found a tree covered with deep red succulent wild plums, also known as cherry plums. These were the Veuve Cliquot of wild plums in our area. Over a two week period I gathered 26 lbs of fruit from this small tree. Last year someone discovered this tree before me.

I decided to drive past it today. Joy of joys, it was heavy with fruit. Jalopy waited patiently as I harvested a carrier bag full. Lovely sweet fruit with a sharp edge. Perfect for our chutney or damson cheese. And they were ripe and ready to pick (when do you know when hedgerow fruit is ready to pick? See Tricks and tips below). Suddenly the sun shone gloriously for me.

The picture above shows, right to left, a wild (cherry) plum, bullace and a wild damson. The latter will ripen to a dark red/back colour. The bullace is usually much bigger and plumper and is just like a small greengage. Wild plums are not a standard size, this is a large and particularly delicious one from my favourite tree.

Tricks and tips:

When do you know when hedgerow fruit is ready to pick?

This is easy and so heartening. When the fruit is ready to pick you just need to touch the fruit and it will fall into your hand. Picking with the gentlest touch.

You can pick unripe fruit and it will ripen in a bowl at home. I found unripe damsons today and as they are so rare, picked them to ripen on a windowsill. However they are at their best ripened on the tree.

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  1. Fiona Nevile

    Hello Nick

    I’ve been searching for an answer but sadly have drawn a blank.

    I do know that if my neighbours fruit hangs over into my garden that fruit belongs to my neighbour not me. So probably the fruit belongs to the farmer.

    I always forage on footpath and roadside hedges. If a hedge runs along a footpath you have the right to forage for fruit on the footpath side. Foraging on the roadside seems to be a rather misty area. I’d try and find somewhere else to go if I was you.

    • Brian Cusworth

      Common law allows foraging for personal use.
      The Theft Act 1968, for England and Wales, states that:
      “A person who picks mushrooms growing wild on any land, or who picks flowers, fruit or foliage from a plant growing wild on any land, does not (although not in possession of the land) steal what he picks, unless he does it for reward or for sale or other commercial purpose.”

      In addition to common law there may be local laws, byelaws, these may still make foraging illegal. They should be on display somewhere on the land. You must also be legally allowed access to the site where you intend to forage. So you see, it is not as simple as it first seemed when I quoted the Theft Act 1968. NB: It is always illegal to take wood for firewood as this belongs to someone and it is only with the permission of the owner of the wood that it may be removed.

  2. Nick Wood

    As most of your readers do I enjoy foraging for wild fruit in the hedgerows.which I have done all my life. I am now a pensioner. Last Sunday my wife and I stopped in a lane to pick damsons growing in the hedgerow from outside the field, I would never go into a field without the owners permission. We were soon accosted by the farmer passing who sceamed that we were stealing as the tree grew on his land, even though he clearly neither picked them or bothered to clear them from the footpath as this was smothed in rotting fruit. Can you tell me do the public have the right to forage the hedgerows or is this apparently very mean-minded farmer right.

  3. kate (uk)

    Life is too short-I’d just call them the same!The fruits could be smaller just because it’s a tree on drier ground/ that has smaller fruit/that had later flowers….

  4. While picking some crab apple apples this week, I came across a tree with fruit that I initially assumed were damsons. However after picking about a pound of them I noticed that a tree the other side of the crab apple tree had smaller (2cm) much more oval fruit which looked much more like the damsons I remembered as a child. I therefore decided the larger (3cm) rounder fruit may be bullaces. An extensive internet search only served to create more confusion over which was which as some sites say bullaces are smaller than damsons. Some sites say that bullaces ripen later than damsons but both of these fruits were fully ripe. I have also read about ‘stone release’ and the smaller fruit’s stones can be removed more easily. As far as taste goes, the flesh is fairly similar plummy sweet/sharpness in both. I fancy the smaller fruit may have a slightly more bitter skin but am not sure if that is just because I am expecting damson skin to be bitter. So I guess the question is do I assume these fruits are essentially one and the same and put them in the same gin pot or do I keep them apart and label one damson gin and the other bullace gin??

  5. Vassili

    Regarding sloes and not to pick them till first frost pick them now and put in your freezer for 24 hours take them out let thaw bingo they have had the first frost hope this helps

  6. Hello!

    I’ve been trying to identify a tree that I planted in my garden a couple of years ago. My mother found a little seedling growing in her garden, nurtured it in a pot and gave it to me. It was pretty and I thought nothing more about it. It grew like mad and is easily 15 foot high now. This year, I noticed little fruits weighing the branches down that looked delicious. Imagine my utter delight to find that this tiny little seedling has grown into the most gorgeous and fruitful wild plum tree! Your picture above has confirmed it for me. I am going to make plum jam this very afternoon!

    Thankyou for helping identify it!

  7. mandarama

    hello there
    last year I found a plum tree whilst out foraging for crab apples and this year it is laden with beautiful small yellow plums. Are thee a form of mirabelles? They are bout an inch long and oval in shape, although anearby tree that is not so advanced (fruit still entirely green and hard has more egg shaped fruit).

    Whatever they are, I hope no-one else picks them, before they are ready.

    I remember eating bottled plums, as a child – does anyone have a good method for this? Also, at what stage should plums be picked for bottling?

    Any tips or notions would be appreciated, many thanks.

  8. Hi

    Just been out foraging for fruit in what can only be described as an orchard of cherry plum trees, yellow red and orange, some had already drooped their fruit while others were still heavily ladened, we filled a bag and 4 2l ice cream containers.. but hers the quandry what do i do with it all?

    I usually only pick blackberries and mulberries which i freeze and use throughout the year, how do i store these cherry plums? I have seen some jam making recipies however i will want to go collect more fruit to make the process cost effective. Can i not freeze these plums and add them to the next batch ?

    • Fiona Nevile

      Hi Jem

      Yes those are cherry plums. They freeze well – just bung them in a plastic bag or a box.

      We have recipes for wild plum jam
      and a lovely plum chutney
      and also a great fairly tart jelly for lamb or game

      If you try the jelly you can make wild plum butter with the remains of the fruit.

  9. Fiona Nevile

    Hi Helen,

    This sounds like a wonderful dessert! Thanks for sharing.

  10. I have never picked bullaces before but last week I found loads! I tried to make jam but it didn’t set so it’s more of a sauce really. I tried whipping some of my ‘sauce’ together with double cream and natural yoghurt and freezing it. It’s absolutely delicious! Please let me know if any of you decide to try making it, I feel rather proud of my invention!

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