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Prunus domestica subsp. insititia
Lyth Valley, Cumbria (formerly Westmorland)
Westmorland Showground, Crooklands
Saturday 13th April 2024 (provisional date)
The Damson Day Country Fair - has become the focus of the celebration now held each Spring for a distinctive variety of plum, the Westmorland Damson, found mostly in and around the Lyth and Winster valleys in the orchards and hedgerows that characterize the local landscape.
romising: 'live music, hot food, real ale, craft demonstrations, dog agility displays, orchard advice, blossom walks, Morris dancers and many stalls'.
Believed, by the Westmorland Damson Association to be a type of Shropshire prune (perhaps the 'Blue Violet'), but said to be superior in flavour, having been 'improved by the unique conditions in Westmorland and pollination by the wild bullace and sloe', it is in April that orchards and hedgerows produce magnificent displays of pure white blossom.
Once the destination of visitors from all over Lancashire who flocked to see the beautiful sight of the trees' blossom in Spring on what became known as Damson Sunday, today's Damson Day - the precise timing varying according to weather conditions - celebrates this phenomenon and aims to promote the trees and their produce.
Damson fruit, which ripen in September, are known to have been grown and sold in Westmorland, since the beginning of the 18th C and their harvest was celebrated until the beginning of WW2, in 1939, on 'Damson Saturday', when cartloads of fruit were to be seen in Kendal, ready for distribution and use.
Today, the fruit, which has a rich, intense flavour, is sold in Autumn in local shops and from roadside stalls and used for a variety of purposes including jams, jellies, chutney, wine, beer and damson gin.
Sources: Westmorland Damson Association:
History of the Damson
The precise origin of the damson is unclear, but it is commonly regarded as having arisen either as a result of the wild crossing of the sloe (Prunus spinosa) and the cherry plum (Prunus cerasifera), or to have developed only from sloes, possibly in the Caucasus region of southern Russia or the western fringes of Asia (Asia Minor) and to be the main ancestor of 'large-fruited domestic plums'. (1)
Taking a wide range of forms however, many varieties of this plum subspecies are found across Europe, North Africa and the Anatolian region, and the name 'damson' has been classified as a group to which particular forms, such as the Westmorland Damson belong.
The name 'damson' is derived, via terms such as damascene or damasin from the Latin 'damascenum', used in antiquity to refer to a plum from the region of Damascus in Syria where Roman accounts suggest they were cultivated and from where they were introduced to Italy some 2,000 years ago.
Although it is sometimes suggested that these same plums were then introduced by the Romans to Britain, since remnants of what are described as damsons have been found at various archaeological Roman sites in Britain, there is doubt about whether these are in fact what were being referred to by the Romans as plums from Damascus.
There does seem to have been considerable confusion about the true identity of 'plum' remains in Britain generally - with various reports of 'damson' stones at Anglo-Saxon archaeological sites (referred to as Prunus domestica) (2) and at Viking sites (3), for example, at the Jorvic Viking Centre at York, now identified as sloes. (4)
While some suggest that damson fruit were first brought to Britain during the period of the Crusades (1095 - 1291), paleobotanical finds - as evidenced by the discovery of fruit stones at Swiss Lake dwellings sites, dating from around 4,000 BC - show that damsons were being eaten or cultivated in Europe in Neolithic times, though it is not known whether these were indigenous or introduced by migrating farmers.(5)
Uses of the Damson
Producing an intensely rich purple colour, damson skins are variously reported to have been used to make a dye 'from Roman times' (6) and much more recently, a commercial dye for wool and leather in Britain. In the 19th C, 'when every well-dressed woman had a pair of leather gloves', one source states that 'dying leather with damson juice was an important small rural industry' (7). This use as a source of dye is said to have continued in northern England until the 1930s, when large quantities of damsons were picked and sent to Lancashire for use in the textile trade.(8) A report compiled for English Nature in 2005 however, concluded that whilst the use of damsons may have been significant as a small cottage industry, little documentary evidence exists to support claims of industrial use.(9)
What is certain however, is that tons of damsons were formerly sent to Lancashire for turning into jam. Some 250 tons of fruit are said to have been sold in Westmorland in 1938, when the first Damson Growers Association was formed and a small canning and jam factory was set up locally. The shortage of sugar and lack of manpower however that WW2 caused, brought about an end to this local trade.(10)
1. Woldring, H., On the Origins of Plums: a study of sloe, damson, cherry plums, domestic plums and their intermediate forms, Palaeohistoria 39, 40: 535-562.
2. Godwin, Sir H., The History of the British Flora, Cambridge University Press, 1984, p 197
3. The Country Gardener, Issue No 156, p 46, August 2017
5. Woldring, op cit., p 546/547.
6. Westmorland Damson Association - www.lythdamsons.org.uk
7.The Country Gardener, p. 46
8.The Country Gardener, p. 46
9. Stephens, B., 'Damsons and Dying', in ‘The Fruit Trade in the Area of Bewdley and the Wyre Forest’ (Unpublished report for English Nature, March 2005)
10. Westmorland Damson Association - www.lythdamsons.org.uk
The Westmorland Damson Association website explains that damsons, whose productive life is 'about 50 years' are 'very tolerant of altitude, soil type, acidity and alkalinity. They will grow as far north as Scotland, but are favoured by the wetter conditions of the western side of the country. Although they like a damp climate, blossom time needs to be dry for good pollination, and they do not like their roots to stand in swampy conditions' .
The website adds that damsons are self-fertilising but may not always grow true from their stones, so the best way of propagating them is to dig up and replant the small suckers that spring up from the roots of older trees. These suckers, the website says, will be able to produce fruit at about 8 years old.
'Damsons are always a surprise. They don't have a great deal of charisma. All the outward signs are of some lesser kind of plum, not quite fat or juicy enough, and the tree is often hardly more than a scrawny outgrown shrub. Yet the taste and colour have great intensity ... Damson jam is the richest and best there is'
The Country Gardener, Issue No 156, August 2017.
An in depth history of the Lyth Valley damson is presented in the podcast by Desmond Holmes and Hartley Trotter, made in 2021:
' Countrystride #54: Damsons of the Lyth Valley ‘.
Sources: unless otherwise stated:
The Westmorland Damson Association
(1)The Country Gardener, Issue no 156, August 2017
Damson blossom in Spring
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