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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Phil Gates

Country diary: The outlook is good for this year’s cherry plum jam

There are yellow- and red-fruited forms of cherry plum.
There are yellow- and red-fruited forms of cherry plum. Photograph: Phil Gates

Cherry plums’ flower buds seem impatient here. Their scales began to loosen in early January. By the end of the month they’d swollen, like small clusters of miniature pearls, set in green clasps.

Then, one morning in mid-February, restraining sepals lost their grip, unable to contain the force within any longer. As the rising sun melted overnight frost, leaving glistening water droplets suspended from every twig, the first flowers unfurled their petals.

These are always the earliest hedgerow trees to flaunt their spring bling, well before native blackthorn comes into bloom. Today, with the meteorological end to winter a week away, more bunches of blossom had opened, in an unusually mild end to the month.

Cherry plum, Prunus cerasifera, also known as myrobalan plum, is native to south-eastern Europe, but has been cultivated in Britain’s gardens and parks for 400 years. Thirty years ago, it was rarely recorded in the wild in County Durham, but then it began to appear locally in newly planted hedges on former opencast coal mines and reclaimed industrial land. Deliberately planted, or saplings mistaken for blackthorn? If it was an accident, it was a happy one. Wherever it has been allowed to reach tree proportions, it lights up the March landscape with beacons of blossom, while surrounding trees are still bare-twigged.

Blooming early, when cold winds and frosts can deter pollinators, is risky. All went well in 2022 when some trees in sheltered spots produced a fine crop of yellow plums: we made several jars of gold-hued jam. But after last year’s cold spring there was almost no fruit to forage.

This year, the prospects for jam-making look promising. In this morning’s sunshine, with almost no native wild flowers in bloom, cherry plums’ early nectar attracted pollinating flies and honeybees. By midday they were joined by bumblebees and small tortoiseshell butterflies, coaxed out of hibernation as the day grew warmer.

I wonder: at a time when climate is going haywire, and spring is even less predictable, maybe planting more cherry plums in new hedges, as energy recharging points for early-emerging, overwintering insect species, might not go amiss? And there’s always the promise of that delightful golden jam to consider too.

• Country diary is on Twitter at @gdncountrydiary

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