Plums

Plums are a group of stone fruit that apart from plums and gages (Prunus domestica) also includes damsons, mirabells and bullaces (P. insititia), cherry plums or myrobalans (P. ceracifera) and Japanese plums (P. salicina).

Prunus domestica (plum) 'Excalibur', 'Kirke's', 'Jefferson' gage, 'Victoria' 'Shropshire Prunus Damson' and 'Merryweather' damsons at Nina Plumbe's pick your own Farm, Burnham Market in Norfolk.

Prunus domestica (plum) 'Excalibur', 'Kirke's', 'Jefferson' gage, 'Victoria' 'Shropshire Prunus Damson' and 'Merryweather' damsons at Nina Plumbe's pick your own Farm, Burnham Market in Norfolk.

Quick facts

Common name Plum, gage, damson, mirabelle and myroballan
Botanical name Prunus domestica, P. insititia,  P. ceracifera and P. salicina
Group Fruiting deciduous tree/top fruit
Flowering time Early to mid-spring
Planting time November to March
Height  3-8m (10-26ft) depending on rootstock
Aspect Full sun, south-, south-west or west-facing
Hardiness Fully hardy, but frost may damage blossom and affect fruiting
Difficulty Easy to moderate

Cultivation notes

Site and soil

Plums prefer loamy, fertile soils with pH 6-6.5, but they are tolerant to a wide range of soils as long as they are well drained.

Plums flower early in the year. Choose a warm sheltered site to avoid frost damage to the blossom. Avoid planting in frost pockets. Japanese plums tend to flower particularly early and frost protection is usually need. Consider growing plums as fans against a south-, south-west or west-facing wall or fence in less favourable situations.

Tree forms

Plums are usually trained as an open-centred bush tree with a clear stem of 75cm (2½ft). Their ultimate size will depend on the rootstock they are grafted on. Plums can be also trained as fan against a wall or fence, or trained cordon and pyramid.

Rootstock choice

Plums are usually grafted onto rootstocks to limit their size and encourage earlier fruiting, but truly dwarfing rootstocks are not available. Where space is limited consider growing as a fan or possibly cordon.

Pixy: semi-dwarfing, suitable for cordon or semi-dwarf bush, final height if bush trained 3-4m (10-12ft)
VVA-1: semi-dwarfing, better winter hardiness, improved fruit size and yield, 3-4m (10-12ft)
Wavit: semi-vigorous, suits wide range of soil conditions with some chalk tolerance, 4-4.5m (12-14ft)
St Julian A: semi-vigorous, widely used, tolerant of wide range of soil conditions, 4.5-5m (14-15ft)
Brompton: vigorous, ideal for ‘full’ standards, height over 4.5m (>15ft)

Pollination

If you only have space for one tree, choose a self-fertile cultivar that does not require a cross-pollinator to set fruit. Partly self-fertile cultivars can also produce decent crop (often cross pollinated by wild growing cherry plums).  If the chosen cultivar is not self-fertile, be sure to seek advice from the nursery on suitable partner cultivars to achieve cross pollination.

The flowers are vulnerable to frost damage, as plums flower early to mid-spring. In colder areas plant late flowering cultivars, such as ‘Blue Tit’, ‘Marjorie’s Seedling’ and ‘Oullins Gage’. Where additional  frost protection such as fleece is required, it is more practical to do this on fan trained trees.

Planting

See our advice on tree and shrub planting for information on how to plant a tree.

Watering and feeding

In late winter apply sulphate of potash 20g per sq m (½oz per sq yd). Follow with application of a general fertiliser such as Growmore or Vitax Q4 at 70g per sq m (2oz  per sq yd) in early spring. Much with organic matter, such as garden compost or manure based soil conditioner in early spring.

Aim to prevent drought stress, especially in early to mid-summer when the fruit is swelling. Mulching with organic matter helps to reduce evaporation from the soil.

Fruit thinning

Plums have tendency to over crop and the overladen branches are prone to breaking under the weight of the fruit. Thin in early summer after the natural ‘June drop’.

Pruning and training

When to prune

Plums fruit on mixture of one- and two-year-old shoots, and older wood. Plums (and other stone fruit) should not be pruned during winter, to minimise the risk of infection by silver leaf and bacterial canker. Pruning of young trees is carried out after bud burst in early spring, established trees are pruned in summer.

Open centre bush tree

Bush trained plum trees do not require as precise pruning as apples and pears. However, young trees still require initial training. Plums tolerate having more crowded crown, though mature trees benefit from some light thinning.

  1. First spring. Starting with a feathered maiden, choose three or four well-spaced wider angle side shoots (laterals) about 75cm (2½ft) from  ground level to be the main branches and shorten these by two-thirds. Prune back the central leader back to just above the uppermost lateral. Remove shoots below the selected laterals.
  2. By the second spring or a two-year-old tree (often offered for sale in plant centres) the main laterals should have produced their own side shoots, the strongest of which need shortening by half, pruning to an outward-facing bud to develop an open crown. Remove any weak or badly placed shoots. Remove a replacement central leader if the tree formed one,  pruning above the topmost a wider-angled side branch. Bought trees may come with the replacement leader that needs to be pruned out.
  3. In the third spring continue developing a well-spaced framework as described above.
  4. In the fourth year switch to summer pruning, as for established trees. Rub out any buds developing on the lower trunk and carefully pull off suckers arising from the rootstock. Pruning is mostly limited to removing crossing, weak, diseased material and strong vertical growth. If the branches are still crowded then further thinning can be done.

For more information see our page on plum pruning.

Overgrown or neglected trees

Heavy pruning is best avoided, as larger pruning cuts often do not heal well.

Thinning of branches on an old, neglected plums tree should be staged over several years in summer. Aim for a well-balanced crown, keeping the centre free from shoots to allow good light penetration. Aim to prune to a strong existing shoot that is at least one third of the diameter that you are removing rather than leaving bare branch stumps that can be prone to dieback. Alternatively remove the branch entirely. Trees may respond to larger pruning cuts by sending up a mass of new shoots. Where this happens the shoots will need to be thinned in the summer to leave just one or two.

Fan training - fan-trained trees need regular pruning twice a year in early summer and after fruiting. See initial pruning of fan-trained trees and pruning established fans.

Cordon training – it is not ideal for plums in the absence of truly dwarfing rootstocks. The trees tend to produce strong growth that can be difficult to manage. Cordon training is better suited for naturally less vigorous cultivars such as ‘Early Laxton’, ‘Czar’ and ‘Blue Tit’ grafted on semi-dwarfing Pixy rootstock. See our page on growing and training as cordon plums for more information.

Pyramid training – see plum pruning profile.

Propagation

Plums are generally propagated by grafting or budding. Named cultivars will not come true from seed. Trees grown from seed or cuttings will be much larger trees than those grafted onto a chosen rootstock, and will be slower to start fruiting.

Cultivar Selection

SF – Self-fertile
SoU – season of use

Plum (P. domestica) – dessert

‘Blue Tit' AGM: plum, SF. Compact and reliable blue plum. Suitable for northern regions in a sheltered sunny situation. SoU: mid-August

‘Edda’: plum, not SF, pollination group 2, ‘Opal’ and ‘Victoria’ are good pollinators. Modern cultivar. Very hardy, well-suited for colder northern regions, tolerant of light shade. Good flavour, suitable for desert and culinary purpose. SoU: Early August

‘Haganta’: blue plum, partly SF. Recently introduced. Good flavour and disease resistance. SoU: September

'Opal' AGM: orange-red plum, SF. Reliable heavy cropper, suitable for northern regions. Tolerates light shade, but for flavour grow in sun. SoU: early August

'Victoria' AGM: orange-red plum, SF. Hardy, suitable for northern regions, tolerant of light shade. SoU: late August to early September

Plum (P. domestica) – culinary

'Belle de Louvain': purple plum, SF, suitable for northern regions and areas with late frost, light shade tolerant.   SoU: late August

'Czar' AGM: purple plum, SF, good for difficult and northern situations, hardy. Frost, light shade and wetter conditions tolerant. SoU early August

'Marjorie’s Seedling' AGM: blue plum, SF. Dual purpose. Good disease resistance, suitable for northern regions. SoU: September

'Pershore' AGM (‘Yellow Pershore’, ‘Yellow Egg’): yellow plum, SF. Hardy, suitable for northern regions, disease resistant. SoU: mid-August

‘Warwickshire Drooper’: yellow plum, SF. Notably hardy, suitable for northern regions. Fairly vigorous with conspicuous weeping habit, heavy crops.  SoU: September

Gage (P. domestica

A group of plum cultivars with round-oval fruit and largely pale green flesh. The skin colour ranges from green to yellowish, sometimes with bluish or purple tinges. Desert or dual purpose quality fruit.

'Cambridge Gage' AGM: partly SF. Very reliable. Best planted in sun. SoU: late August to early September

'Imperial Gage' (syn. 'Denniston’s Superb') AGM: SF. Reliable, quite vigorous, good disease resistance. SoU: late August

'Oullins Gage' AGM: SF. Reliable, suitable for northern regions. SoU: mid-August

‘Reine Claude de Bavais’: SF. Fairly compact. Suitable for northern regions. For full flavour plant in full sun and sheltered spot. SoU: Early September

Damson (P. insititia)

Damsons produce small dark-purple, blue plum-like fruit with a distinct flavour. Great for culinary purpose such as making jams, jellies, and pies.

'Farleigh Damson': SF. Hardy, suitable for north and wetter regions.  SoU: mid-September

'Prune Damson' (syn ‘Shropshire Prune’) AGM: SF. Reliable, suitable for northern regions. Tolerant of wetter climate and partial shade. SoU: early September

Mirabelle (P. insititia)

These are round, cherry size, bright red to golden yellow fruit that can be eaten fresh, but largely used for culinary purpose. 

‘Mirabelle de Metz’: partly SF, Golden mirabelle. Mirabelles are small sweet plums very popular in France mainly for cooking and jam making. Desert/culinary

‘Mirabelle de Nancy’: partly SF, Most popular mirabelle. Mirabelles are small sweet plums very popular in France mainly for cooking and jam making. SoU:  August/early September

Myroballan/cherry plum (P. ceracifera)

Similar to mirabelle.

‘Gypsy’: partly SF, The sweet fruit is bright red with an orange flesh. Desert/Culinary SoU:  August

‘Golden Sphere’: partly SF, golden yellow fruit, desert/culinary, SoU: August.

‘Ruby’: partly SF, relatively large dark red fruit and flesh.  Desert/culinary. SoU: August/early September

Japanese plum (P. salicina)

‘Methley’: SF, purple plum with dark red flesh. Very early flowering, needs warm sheltered spot. SoU: early August

Problems

Plums can be prone to diseases such as bacterial canker, honey fungus, blossom wilt, brown rot, silver leaf, plum rust and pocket plum.

Potential pest problems include plum moth, aphids, winter moth caterpillar. The fruit fly - spotted wing drosophila (SWD) - is likely to become an increasing problem.

Plums can be prone to magnesium deficiency.


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