Appears in

Oxford Companion to Food

Oxford Companion to Food

By Alan Davidson

Published 2014

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damson a small oval plum which, together with the somewhat rounder bullace plum, is classified as Prunus instititia (a botanical name whose spelling is much disputed—insititia is preferred by many authorities). The species, native to E. Europe and W. Asia, is considered to be older than P. domestica, the plum proper. Growing wild in hedgerows it is small and sour, suited only to making jam, but cultivated varieties have a fuller range of uses.

The damson had been known in W. Europe since prehistoric times (remains have been found, for example, in excavations of prehistoric Swiss lake dwellings), but was also growing in the Near East. It received its name because it was from Damascus, in Syria, that this damson reached Italy in times bc. When in about 1200 the Duke of Anjou brought the fruit back to France from a Crusade, a further baptism took place; the fruit was now called Damascene, while the shorter form ‘damson’ was still applied to fruits of the same species which had been known earlier in Europe. (There is evidence that in medieval times and indeed right up to the 19th century a distinction was preserved, at least in some quarters, between W. European damsons and Near Eastern Damascene plums.)