Green Gages are the road-trip worthy, candy-sweet, pinnacle of plums. They shame the large Japanese plums we usually see in the United States. With careful tending, these plum trees can be grown in the United States, so read on to find out why you should give these finicky trees a chance.
What are Green Gage plums?
These gloriously sweet plums are a naturally occurring hybrid of the Prunus domestica (European plums) and Prunus insititia (Damson and Mirabelle plums). Once you know this, these sweet little fruits make more sense. Damson plums are native to Great Britain, and are a small, tart plum most famously used in jams. Green Gages takes their small size from its Damson ancestor. Mirabelles are the color of an apricot and are small and sweet.
These plums are also classified as Prunus domestica, and you will find many cultivars of this species. The names often reflect the point of origin of that specific subspecies. Below I identify the strains that will give the true Green Gage (also spelled greengage) flavor.
History of Green Gage Plums
The history is murky, but the most prevalent school of thought is that they stem from a green-fruited wild plum native to Iran, and Western culture became familiar with it the 16th century when Francis I of France cultivated it and named it after his queen, Claude. From there, the tree was imported to England, and the identifying label was lost or ruined. Sir William Gage then introduced the variety to his country, and the rest is history.
We often think of this tasty dessert fruit as an English plum, but the French roots are still to be found. The original Green Gage created by the French is the Reine-Claude Doree, and the descendants of this cultivar are still grown in France today.
How Green Gages Taste
It is impossible to overstate the uniqueness of this plum. Its intense sweetness and scarcity has made it the truffle of plums. Finding a perfectly ripe one is the Mecca for food connoisseurs.
The Brix scale gauges the sugar content of fruit. The Fuji apple, the sweetest apple, measures 15-18 Brix. Green Gages measure 30-38. This means that the water in a Green Gage is nearly 40 percent sugar. Over-the-top natural sugar content makes this the finest dessert fruit you can hope to find.
Lucas Kwan Peterson of the Los Angeles Times described his first experience eating a Green Gage (and another, and another): “The first honeyed bite explodes with preposterous sweetness…Comparison to other fruits are hard to make…”
David Karp of the New York Times traveled to France to see one of the few remaining Green Gage orchards. Recalling his childhood tree, he wrote, “I would pluck as many as I could, and their syrupy sweetness inspired a rapture that has haunted me ever since, though the tree died long ago.”
How to Use Green Gage Plums
Do not look for recipes. Do not even think of turning them to jam. Unless you come into a monstrous horde of Green Gages, eat them plain. Pair with cheese and wine to fend off a sugar-induced stomach ache.
Just as you would never dilute an expensive whiskey with Coca-Cola, do not hide any of the special sugary flavor by baking it into another dish. This fruit really does not need to be covered in sugar or butter or sauce to be a fabulous treat.
If you do have that monstrous horde, bake it into the same dishes for which you would use an Italian plum or Satsuma. One preservation option to best maintain the flavor of the fruit would be to make a plum cake that you could either eat fresh or freeze to save for later.
Since these really are too nice to let waste, another long-term storage option for your bumper crop years would be to make a sorbet. A simple recipe will let the taste of the fruit shine through, and it will be a unique dish to pull out when you have guests.
All plums have a similar nutritional profile that provides potassium, calcium, phosphate, and Vitamins C and B. The skins provide antioxidants, and of course, dietary fiber. The high sugar content of the Green Gages will immediately kick you out of ketosis, and people who need to monitor their natural sugar intake for health purposes should proceed slowly and with caution.
How to Grow Green Gages
These plums are notoriously challenging to grow, which is why they have faded in popularity and plum farmers have transitioned to the commercially available European and Asians plums that we see in stores. They can be a frustrating introduction to home fruit production for new growers.
When planting, know that you will not taste the fruits of your labor for many years, likely at least 7. These trees take after their Damson ancestor, for which the saying is: “He who plants plums, plants for his sons. He who plants damsons, plants for his grandsons.”
To get a regular, affordable supply of Green Gage plums, you need to plant your own tree. They grow in hardiness zones 4 through 8. You must plant your new tree near another European plum for cross-pollination in order to get fruit. Orange Pippin Trees has a list of suitable cross-pollinators.
One of the greatest challenges of these trees is that they are biennial bearers, much like pecan trees. This means that one year, you will have a bumper crop, but the next, very scant. This inconsistency has proven economically detrimental to would-be commercial growers. To best manage this, consistent pruning is required.
Green Gages have many needs for the best fruit: chalky soil; full, hot sun; cool nights; dryness during the harvest period. Provide shelter from wind and late frosts. Otherwise, plant saplings in spring or seeds in fall. Be sure to add sand to your soil if it is not well draining.
The fruits are delicate and must be hand-picked. Rain will cause nearly ripe plums to crack and rot. Perhaps the only easy part of these trees is that they can be grown from the seed of a ripe Green Gage plum.
Much of the commercially available apple and plum varieties we see in grocery stores cannot be grown from seed because the fruit is representative of the tree it grew on, but the seed inside of that fruit will reflect the traits of both that tree and the tree from which the fertilizing pollen came.
The harvest window is narrow for Green Gages and will vary based on your location and climate. Expect ripe fruit late summer beginning in early August through September. You may only have about a week to bring in your crop, yet another reason why these are not the most practical plums. Still, the potential flavor is worth it.
Where to Buy Green Gages
Both the fruit and the tree will require some shoe leather to find. Visiting one of the few orchards that grow this tasty treat would be a great fall road trip to sample the honeyed flavor before committing to growing your own tree and testing the fruit in 7 years. Beware, the prices may give you sticker shock.
- Andy’s Orchard in Morgan Hill, California is the largest commercial producer of greengages in the United States. In early August, contact them to find out if they have a crop this year and which farmer’s market(s) their produce will be at.
- Willis Orchards and Orange Pippin both sell Green Gage saplings. For the most authentic varieties, look for greengage, Old greengage, or Cambridge Greengage.
If you want a plum that is sweet as sugar, no other cultivar will do. But, if you want a plum with more consistent crop yields that is less challenging to grow, take a look at some other plum tree cultivars:
The Satsuma plum is a Japanese plum that can grow in zone 10, so it will be more cold-tolerant than the Italian plum. Learn more about Japanese plums in general by visiting All About Japanese Plums.
If you are looking for a plum that offers a sweet taste and is good for fresh eating and baking, you may like the elephant heart plum.
- Green Gage plums lend their name to a book called The Greengage Summer. The film adaptation is The Loss of Innocence.
- George Washington and Thomas Jefferson grew greenages on their plantations.
Kudos to any gardener willing to invest the time and effort required to bring this rare fruit to life. You will be rewarded with a coved plum that is hopefully more than worth the way. This may even be your new favorite plum.
If there was ever a test in the value of delayed gratification, the Green Gage plum would be a prime example.
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