Damson trees are easy to grow and produce heavy crops of small, juicy, blue-black fruits in late summer, as well as pretty blossom in early spring. The fruits are slightly astringent, with smooth, yellow-green flesh, and have a rich flavour ideal for many culinary uses, but particularly for jams and preserves.
Damsons are smaller and less sweet than plums, but ideal for making into deliciously rich jams and desserts
The trees are simple to plant and like a warm, sunny spot with fertile soil that doesn’t get waterlogged. If you don’t have space for a free-standing tree, you can grow a fan-trained tree flat against a wall or fence, or a tree grafted on a dwarfing rootstock in a large container. In larger gardens, they make a great addition to a wildlife-friendly hedgerow and are tough enough to act as a windbreak. Bees and other pollinators enjoy the blossom’s sweet nectar in spring.
Damsons need little maintenance apart from annual pruning to keep them in good shape, and will reward you with plentiful harvests for years to come.
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Regional varieties, such as ‘Shropshire Prune’, are particualrly suited to their local growing conditions
The widely sold damson varieties are self-fertile, so you only need one tree, but do check before buying. Trees that aren’t self-fertile need a compatible ‘pollination partner’ nearby – another damson that flowers at a similar time (in a similar ‘pollination group’) – to ensure a good crop. For more details, see our guide to fruit pollination.
Like plums, damson trees are grafted onto the roots (rootstock) of a different type of plum, to limit their size and encourage earlier fruiting. So as well as choosing a variety, you also need to choose a suitable rootstock, which depends on the size and style of tree you want:
- For smaller/trained trees: ‘Pixy’ (semi-dwarfing, for cordon or semi-dwarf bush tree, up to 3–4m/10–12ft tall) and ‘VVA-1’ (semi-dwarfing, 3–4m/10–12ft) tall
- For medium-sized trees: ‘St Julian A’ (semi-vigorous, 4.5–5m/14–15ft tall) and ‘Wavit’ (semi-vigorous, 4–4.5m/12–14ft tall)
- For large trees: ‘Brompton’ (vigorous, for large free-standing trees over 4.5m/15ft tall)
What and where to buy
Damson trees are sold either bare-root (without soil around the roots) or in containers. Bare-root trees are only available while dormant, from late autumn to late winter, for immediate planting. Containerised trees are available all year round. Specialist fruit nurseries offer the widest choice of varieties, usually by mail order. Bare-root trees are mainly available from specialist suppliers. Damson trees in containers may also be available in garden centres and from other online plant suppliers.
Choose a tree with a well-balanced shape and three to five good shoots growing from the central stem (leader). You can then train and prune it into any of the popular tree forms if you wish – see Pruning and Training, below. Partially trained trees are also available from specialist nurseries.
Damsons crop best in a warm, sheltered site in full sun. They’re among the earliest fruit to flower and although the trees are hardy, the delicate blossom isn’t. So avoid planting in sites prone to heavy frosts or strong winds, which can damage the blossom and deter pollinators. In colder sites, it’s best to train damsons against a south-, south-west or west-facing wall or fence – see our tips on positioning fruit.
Damsons like fertile soil, ideally slightly acidic, with a pH of 6–6.5, although they’re tolerant of a wide range of soils. They don’t like to dry out, especially when the fruit is forming, so generally prefer a loamy or clay soil, as long as it doesn’t get waterlogged.
The best time to plant is during the dormant season, before growth starts in late winter or early spring. Bare-root trees are only available while dormant, but containerised trees are available all year round – they can potentially be planted at any time, but will settle in best from late autumn to spring.
Prepare your damson tree for planting by giving it a good watering if it’s in a pot or by standing it in a bucket of water for half an hour if it’s a bare-root tree. If planting in a lawn, remove a circle of grass at least 1m (3¼ft) in diameter, so the tree’s roots don’t have to compete with the grass for water and nutrients as they get established.
Damsons are easy to plant and will settle in quickly, although they may take a few years to start fruiting. See our guides below for full details.
Planting against a wall
If your tree is going to be trained against a wall, prepare the planting site particularly well, as the soil at the base of walls is usually poor and dry. Dig in lots of well-rotted manure or garden compost, then plant the tree 25–35cm (10–14in) away from the wall. You’ll also need to attach horizontal wires to the wall to support the branches – see Pruning and Training, below.
Planting in a container
Damson trees crop best in the ground, but if you don’t have suitable soil or an available site, you can plant a compact variety on a semi-dwarfing rootstock (either ‘Pixy’ or ‘VVA-1’) in a large container. The pot it’s in when you buy it will usually be too small, so repot as soon as possible. Choose a container about 60cm (2ft) wide and deep – terracotta pots or half-barrels are suitably heavy and stable. Use peat-free soil-based compost and position the tree at the same depth it was previously growing. See our video guide below for more tips.
Damsons need little maintenance to produce a reliable crop, but you can greatly increase your harvest by watering and feeding at the right times. Protect blossom from late frosts if possible and thin out heavy crops to avoid branches breaking under the weight.
The pretty blossom is a spring treat, but take care to protect it from frost
Newly planted damson trees should be watered regularly for at least their first growing season. Once established, trees should only need watering during long dry spells, especially in early to mid-summer when the fruit is swelling. Lack of water may cause trees to shed young fruit. Mulching (see below) will help to stop the soil drying out.
To get a successful crop from a containerised damson tree, it must be watered regularly throughout the growing season, and even daily in hot weather. Equally importantly, don’t leave it standing in water, especially in winter, as the roots will rot – raise the container onto ‘pot feet’ or bricks to keep the drainage holes clear and avoid waterlogged compost.
Apply a mulch of well-rotted manure or garden compost in mid-spring to help retain soil moisture, keep down weeds and provide nutrients. Leave a gap around the base of the trunk to deter rotting.
In late winter, feed with a high potassium general fertiliser, such as Vitax Q4 or fish, blood and bonemeal. Scatter two handfuls per square metre/yard around trees growing in bare soil, and two and a half around those in grass.
Damson trees in pots should be given a high potassium liquid feed every couple of weeks in spring and summer. Also, repot them every few years in spring, into a slightly larger container, once their roots fill the current container. Use peat-free loam-based potting compost.
Protecting from frost
Damsons flower very early in the year, so the blossom is vulnerable to frost damage. With smaller trained trees, if frost is forecast during flowering, cover them temporarily in a tent of fleece or hessian, holding it away from the flowers with canes. Remove it during the day, to allow pollinators access.
With trees in containers, move them indoors or into a sheltered spot if frosts are due during flowering.
Damsons often produce a heavy crop and their branches can break under the weight. To avoid this, thin out the young fruits in early summer after the natural June drop – reduce them to one fruit every 5–8cm (2–3in) or a pair every 15cm (6in). This is easiest to do on smaller trained trees, but is worth doing on larger trees too on the branches you can reach.
If your tree ends up carrying a particularly heavy crop, be prepared to prop up the branches in mid- and late summer, otherwise the weight of fruit could snap them.
The best way to propagate damsons is by grafting or budding, which do require some skill but are well worth a try. Trees grown from damson stones or cuttings will grow much larger than those grafted onto a rootstock and will be slower to start fruiting. Named varieties may not come true when grown from stones.
Pruning and Training
Just like plums, damson trees should be pruned annually to keep them in good shape, healthy and productive:
Young trees should be pruned in early spring, after the buds open
Established trees should be pruned in summer
Free-standing damson trees are best pruned as:
Bush trees – with a trunk about 75cm (2½ft) tall, then three or four branches radiating out at the top to create an open-centred goblet shape
Pyramid trees – similar to bush trees, but with their central shoot (leader) intact, so they don’t have an open centre. The branches start lower down, 40–50cm (15–20in) from the ground, and get gradually shorter further up the tree, to create a pyramid shape
Damson trees can also be trained into more space-saving shapes, ideal for small gardens or if you want to grow several fruit trees. The best shapes for damsons are:
Fans – a short trunk topped with a flat fan of radiating branches, trained against a wall or fence. Prune twice a year, in early summer and after fruiting – see initial pruning of fans and pruning established fans
Cordons – compact tree comprising a single stem with very short side-shoots, ideal for small spaces and pots. Support with a sturdy stake or horizontal wires. As there are no truly dwarfing rootstocks for damsons, this method is less successful than with apples, but it can work with less vigorous varieties on semi-dwarfing ‘Pixy’ or ‘VVA-1’ rootstock. See training plums as cordons
Trees can be bought ready-trained, partly trained or untrained, depending on how much work you want to do. Damsons aren’t suitable for training as espaliers.
Pruning overgrown or neglected trees
If a damson tree hasn’t been pruned for several years, its branches can get congested. Thinning them out should be staged over several summers. Aim to gradually create a well-balanced framework with an open centre to allow in plenty of light and air. Heavy pruning is best avoided, as larger cuts may not heal well.
Pick individual fruits once fully ripe, for making into desserts and jam, or even to flavour gin
Damson trees are generally hardy, vigorous and fruitful, but the following problems may affect cropping:
Frost damage to blossom – cover smaller trees with hessian or fleece if late frost is forecast when in blossom, or bring containerised trees indoors. Avoid planting in sites prone to late frosts
- Poor harvests – late frosts (see above) and spring storms can damage blossom and deter pollinators. Lack of water can cause young fruits to be shed. Trees may also crop more lightly in alternate years – known as biennial bearing. Fruits may be eaten by birds and wasps – it may be possible protect fruit with bird netting on smaller, trained trees, but larger trees usually produce such generous crops that there should be plenty for wildlife too
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