Gauging the Gages

Plums from a dead nectarine tree

While picking apples yesterday I noticed that most of the leaves had blown off one of my greengage trees, the one that grew up from the rootstock of a dead nectarine tree. Among all my Prunus trees, this one’s fruits ripen latest. The little plums, as green when ripe as when hard and new, tend to hide among the leaves. Exposed to view now were three survivors, wrinkled but otherwise perfect. Picking one at a time, I slowly savored their buttery flesh. I will have to wait most of the year for another taste like that.

Plum trees are among the very best of the weeds with which the Old World has blessed the New. In California, cherry plums (Prunus cerasifera) are so ubiquitous that until recently I thought they were native (in fact, they are now considered an invasive species). When I was a child, grownups would plant certain cultivars for their purple-red leaves and then curse the fallen fruit on the sidewalks. Children loved every cherry plum tree, planted or wild and regardless of leaf color, for the sweet, juicy, mildly to strongly tart fruits, each a perfect mouthful. Like blackberries, these fruits belonged by rights to any child who could reach them, and mothers were obliged to turn every bucketful into jam.

Italian plums from roadside trees

The Pacific Northwest is too cold and wet for cherry plums, but we have our own sweet gift from Europe: the plum, or assortment of plums, that botanists call Prunus domestica. Back when fresh fruit was rare and dear in winter, large, oblong, blue-black fruits of P. domestica were big business in the Willamette Valley, because they are so rich in sugar that you can dry them without pitting them. They still are big business in California, in places where the orchards haven’t been replaced with vineyards, though the agribusiness publicists have banned the word prune and substituted dried plums for the dehydrated product. The main commercial variety in California is called French; Oregon farms grew Italian and Brooks. Although little commercial plum culture remains in Oregon, Oregonians are still enjoying fruits from the remnants of old orchards, along with occasional planted or wild P. domestica trees of other sorts—mirabelle, gage, and damson.

Just as I my little brother and I once brought home cherry plums for my mother to make into jam, my own children used to bring home wild yellow plums. Very different from juicy, tart cherry plums, these yellow plums were low in acid and creamy-fleshed, with a powdery bloom. I sometimes made them into a vanilla-flavored jam, like the jam I’d tasted in the home of a Spanish friend, who called the plums claudias.

This Spanish name comes from Reine Claude, the sixteenth-century queen of the French king Francois I, who named the honey-sweet plums in his wife’s honor. By the early seventeenth century a man named Gage had imported the favorite Reine-Claude cultivar, Reine-Claude Dorée, to England. Unlike its close relatives, which produce tasty but usually unremarkable fruit, Reine-Claude Dorée is said to bear plums that are fragrant as well as extra-sweet. Although related plums, like those from my nectarine rootstock, are often green even when fully ripe, Reine-Claude Dorée starts out green and ripens gold. In England, Reine-Claude Dorée became known as the true Green Gage, and its shirttail relatives as greengages or just gages (because they are not always green).

Mirabelles are similar to gages, but they’re a little smaller and quite yellow when ripe. Two cultivars, mirabelle de Nancy and mirabelle de Lorraine, are celebrated commercial crops in France, where they’re mostly used for jam and eau-de-vie. Although mirabelles belong to the subspecies syriaca, they cross freely with italica, the subspecies that includes the gages. I don’t know whether the yellow plums my children collected were gages or mirabelles or something in between.

One year a zealous farmer ripped out the roadside tree my children had been picking from, figuring, apparently, that the support its roots gave to the wall of the irrigation ditch failed to compensate for whatever nutrients they stole from his beans. So I told the kids I’d plant an even better tree, and bought a grafted greengage from the Home Orchard Society. I hoped this tree would turn out to be the famous Reine-Claude Dorée. A few years later, to my chagrin, the tree began producing fruit much like that of the roadside tree—very sweet and smooth-textured, with skin that ripened gold with tiny red speckles–but lacking in acid and fragrance.

In 2004 David Karp traveled to France in search of the true Green Gage and found that the cultivar is now a rarity there. It takes too many years to come into bearing; it crops erratically; its delicate fruits must be picked with extra care; and the rain causes the plums to crack and rot. As David reported in the New York Times, a French plum farmer told him that Reine Claude Dorée was “bizarre” and “capricious.”

The next best thing to Reine-Claude Dorée, say the French, is the cultivar that started as a seedling of Reine-Claude Dorée in Belgium, where it was discovered in 1832.  This Belgian gage, Reine-Claude de Bavay, produces fruit nearly as delicious as that of la vraie Reine-Claude but is less finicky.

A few years ago, I was able to buy both a Green Gage and a Bavay gage tree from One Green World, Oregon’s famed source for uncommon fruiting trees and shrubs. Though the deer regularly chewed off the leaves and tore the lower branches, and borers bored through the cambium, the trees seemed to thrive, and this past September they produced their first fruits. My mouth watered for a week as I waited for them to finish ripening. When they looked ready I wrapped my fingers around each fruit and tugged very gently. If the plum pulled away easily from its stem, it was ready to eat. If not, I’d try again the next day.

Green Gage—but not Reine-Claude Dorée

The so-called Green Gage fruits were a disappointment. With unspeckled green-gold skins, covered with a thick, dusty bloom, they were a little larger than the fruit of the Home Orchard Society tree, and they had the same wonderful creamy texture and sweetness when fully ripe. But their taste was flat.

Reine-Claude de Bavay







The Reine-Claude de Bavay plums were ugly. A little bigger than the so-called Green Gages, they ripened more green than gold, with a heavy bloom, rash-like red patches, scabby spots, and open cracks. But what a marvel in the mouth! Here was all the buttery texture of the other gages, a powerful honey-like sweetness, and a strong tartness besides.

Green Gages (left) and Bavays (right), their bloom rubbed away

I gave my husband one Bavay, and I ate all the rest as they ripened over the next few days. To heck with Reine-Claude Dorée; I had discovered a greengage I loved. I dreamed of next year’s crop, which was sure to be larger.

Two weeks after I finished off the Bavay plums, I found the tree on the ground. I was mystified at first, because we hadn’t had a storm or any strong winds. But the graft must have been weak—the tree had broken along it—and I could see borer damage at the break, too. I guessed a deer must have hit the tree, just hard enough to fell it, while leaping over the fence behind it.

I let the tree lie. Now it’s time to haul it away and decide: Should I plant another grafted Reine-Claude de Bavay, or should I try to get a scion to graft onto the healthy sucker that, presciently, perhaps, I let grow up over the summer?

And, just for the sake of comparison, should I try once more to find a real Reine-Claude Dorée?