While all types of plum trees will perform best in warm and sheltered back yards, the fruit they bear can vary significantly in taste and purpose.
Do you like nothing more than taking a bite of a sweet and succulent plum? Or perhaps you prefer to whip them up into a mouth-watering preserve? Whatever your chosen method of consuming plums, there are plenty of varieties out there to suit all palates and preferences.
If you’re looking for more information on the different plum varieties to choose from, how to coax the best performance from them and the practical considerations to take into account, this handy and informative guide has you covered.
There are several things that you should ponder before deciding which type of plum to introduce in your garden. These include (but are not limited to):
- Purpose. In general, plum trees come in three distinct varieties: dessert plums, which are best suited to eating uncooked; culinary plums, which are ideal for cooking and converting into sauces and jams; and dual-purpose plums, which can fulfil both roles. Your preferred purpose for the plums will dictate the type you should choose, so the varieties below have been divided into those three categories.
- Siting. All varieties of plum tree invariably perform best in a warm, sheltered location in your garden, while none of them are impervious to spring frosts. With that in mind, it’s advisable to plant the plums in a south-facing or west-facing site in the garden which is not exposed to the elements. On the other hand, you could try to fan train the tree(s) against a wall or fence which receives a lot of sun.
- Region. As mentioned above, no plum variety in the UK is completely immune to spring frosts. However, there are specific species of the fruit which are regional to each county of the UK and are better equipped to cope with the unique climatic conditions of their geographic location. Bear that in mind when researching the type of plum which might be best suited to your home.
- Pollination. Some plum trees are self-pollinating, others are partly self-fertile, and others still are self-incompatible cultivars. While the former category is the easiest to grow, all types will benefit from having another tree in the same or an adjacent pollination group planted nearby. For that reason, it’s advisable to plant at least two different plum varieties at once, even though a single tree will normally produce a good yield.
- Disease resistance. Unfortunately, plum trees are generally more susceptible to disease than certain other types of fruit trees. Bacterial canker and silver leaf are the two most serious ailments which can befall them, though some regional (and some modern) cultivars are more resistant to those blights than others.
Armed with that foreknowledge, you should now be better placed to select a plum variety that serves your needs and suits your circumstances best. Here is a selection of some of the most popular types of plums that can be grown in the UK, subdivided into cooking, culinary or dual-purpose cultivars.
Culinary plums (for making jams, sauces and preserves)
1) Belle de Louvain
The dry flesh of the Belle de Louvain makes it an excellent choice for crafting pie fillings, since its lack of moisture means the bottom of your pastry won’t turn into a soggy mess. It’s also exquisite when converted into jam, with a rich dark colour that catches the eye.
It’s also a hardier variety of plum tree than many on this list, meaning it’s more capable of withstanding colder and windier conditions and will fight off disease more successfully than others. It is partially self-fertile and though it may take longer to bear fruit than others, this gives the tree time to strengthen its branches and prove more reliable in the long run.
Czar plum trees produce decent quality fruits on a remarkably reliable basis. The tree will produce dazzling white flowers in the spring, while the fruits themselves – a devastatingly attractive dark blue – will appear in late August onwards.
Growing to a very maximum of four metres in height (but normally shorter), the Czar is a compact and self-pollinating specimen which is ideal for locations where space is at a premium. Its ability to withstand more inclement conditions and its unfailing ability to yield fruit mean it’s best suited for northern locations.
3) Marjorie’s Seedling
Another hardier strain that is suitable for colder gardens, Marjorie’s Seedling produces heavy, blue fruits which can be harvested from September onwards. However, a fuller, richer taste can be obtained if they are left to ripen on the vine, since the fruit itself will not be damaged by dropping to the ground. As such, it can be left to ripen fully until late October.
To achieve the best results, it’s essential to thin out the fruit in late June to ensure that the tree devotes the requisite attention to those remaining on its branches. It is self-fertile and invariably returns a good yield when cropping time arrives.
4) Purple Pershore
Purple Pershore is a favourite culinary plum for its durability, dependability and resistance to disease. It’s one of very few plum cultivars which can fend off silver leaf fungus and the fact that it blossoms later in the year means it normally escapes the most serious effects of spring frost. It’s also self-fertile, making it fairly easy to cultivate.
On the other hand, Purple Pershore can be particularly susceptible to over-cropping; if that occurs, the tree is likely to produce no yields at all the following year. Therefore, it’s a good idea to thin it out in summer before reaping the fruits in mid-August. It’s also quite a large specimen, making it unsuitable for smaller gardens.
Desserts plums (for eating right away)
5) Cambridge Gage
As a greengage, Cambridge Gage produces smaller fruit than some other plum cultivars – but what it lacks in size, it makes up for in its delectably sweet taste. With yellow-green flesh that falls easily away from the stone, it’s been a favourite for desserts for centuries.
The tree itself is a slightly sensitive creature, doing best in warmer and more sheltered climates. It takes its time to crop and is vulnerable to spring frosts, while it’s self-incompatible, meaning it will require a pollinator. Even in the best conditions, it produces only a modest yield on a semi-reliable basis – but the fruit itself is well worth the struggle.
The Jefferson cultivar is about as good as it gets for taste and texture. With unparalleled sweetness and juiciness, the robustness of the fruit’s skin is helpful in keeping most of it in your mouth and not on your chin! It produces average-sized fruit of a dull greenish yellow colour and crops over a ten-day period in mid- to late-August.
Its susceptibility to spring frosts make it unsuitable for northern locations, but anywhere in the Midlands or further south will nurture its needs more adequately. It’s not compatible with self-pollination, so planting it with a partner (Czar, Marjorie’s Seedling and Victoria are all advisable) returns the best results.
7) Mirabelle de Nancy
Hailing from the Lorraine region in France, Mirabelle de Nancy trees produce such bountiful crops of cherry-sized yellow plums that they were traditionally harvested by laying a large sheet under the branches, then shaking them for all they are worth. The fruit is tasty but drier than many other dessert varieties, meaning it can work as a cooking plum, too.
With an early flowering pattern, the Mirabelle de Nancy produces its yields in mid- to late-August and requires minimal maintenance due to its self-pollinating capabilities. However, its French heritage means that it doesn’t like colder temperatures and can be decimated by late spring frosts, while its abundant yields also mean that overcropping can be a problem.
The Opal is a mix between a plum and a gage, meaning it has inherited the best of both worlds. On the one hand, it has the delicious sweetness of the gage family, but with the slightly bigger dimensions of a plum. When ripe in late July and early August, its exterior is a very appetising yellow adorned with swirls of red and purple.
Due to the fact that the Opal crops earlier in the year than some of its counterparts, it is a little susceptible to spring frost and therefore does best in full sunlight in warmer parts of the country. On the other hand, it is self-fertile, resists disease fairly well and produces generous yields – so much so that overcropping can become a problem on occasion.
Dual-purpose (for both cooking and eating)
A relatively novel cultivar, Avalon was originally bred to offer a more attractive option than the Victoria variety. If picked when the skin is a pinkish red, it’s ideal for making jams or other preserves. However, it’s possible to leave the fruit on the tree until it turns a darker purplish red, at which point it becomes an excellent choice as a dessert plum.
Avalon might take a little longer (a year or more) than other cultivars to bear its first fruit, but once it has done so, it’s a fairly reliable option. It’s partially self-fertile, meaning it will benefit from another plum variety in its vicinity, while it does have a tendency to overcrop – which can not only impact upon the quality of this year’s yield, but also endanger the emergence of any fruits whatsoever the following year. Appropriate pruning can prevent such an eventuality.
10) Blue Tit
An offspring of Old Green Gage and Czar, the Blue Tit has inherited the succulent taste of the former and the hardiness of the latter. Its fruit will first appear on the branch as light green, but will darken to a deep purple over time. Pick a week or so before it’s fully ripe in order to use for culinary purposes, or wait until it drops to the ground to eat right away.
A good choice for novice gardeners, the Blue Tit has decent disease resistance and is self-fertile. Having said that, you can improve the crop yields by introducing a second similar species nearby (Victoria is a particularly apt choice). It handles spring frosts reasonably well and should survive in all but the most intemperate parts of the country.
11) Ouillins Golden Gage
Ouillins Golden Gage is one of the most reliable gage varieties going, producing relatively large fruits every summer. It serves the dual purposes of culinary and cooking plums, meaning you can eat it right away or whip up a delicious jam with it. The fruits, ready for picking in mid-August, are a greenish yellow colour.
Due to its late flowering nature, the Ouillins Golden Gage is suitable for almost all locations in the country, proving fairly frost- and disease-resistant. That includes northern spots which suffer from colder drops in the mercury, though it’s advisable to cultivate it in a sheltered location that is protected from the worst of the wind to achieve the best results. It is self-fertile but, once again, will benefit from the presence of a partner cultivar nearby.
Undoubtedly the most popular variety of plum tree grown in the UK, Victoria is one of the oldest species and one of the easiest to grow, to boot. It’s equally suitable for cooking or eating; simply pick the fruit when it is an orangey red for the former, or wait until it develops into a purplish red to enjoy it via the latter method.
Victoria is self-fertile and will produce generous yields even without the presence of another plum variety nearby. On the flipside, it is highly susceptible to disease and pests, with bacterial canker, brown rot, plum moth and silver leaf all notable concerns. Its high yields can also lead to overcropping and irreparable damage to the branches, so be sure to thin it out in mid-June.