The bullace is a variety of plum. It bears edible fruit similar to those of the damson, and like the damson is considered to be a strain of the insititia subspecies of Prunus domestica. Although the term has regionally been applied to several different kinds of "wild plum" found in the United Kingdom, it is usually taken to refer to varieties with a round shape, as opposed to the oval damsons.
Unlike damsons, bullaces may be either "white" (i.e. yellow or green) or "black" (i.e. blue or purple) in colour, and though smaller than most damsons are much larger than the related sloe. Their flavour is usually rather acid until fully ripe.
Etymology and origin
The name probably originates from the Old French beloce, meaning "sloe", via Middle English bolas. Wild plums were formerly given the related name "bullies" in parts of Lincolnshire. They were also known as the "bullum-tree" in Cornwall; "bullison" in Wiltshire; "scad" in Sussex; and as the "wild damson" in Yorkshire. The similar word bwlas was used in the Welsh language.
Like other varieties of Prunus domestica, the bullace may have had its origin in hybrids between the sloe (Prunus spinosa) and cherry plum (Prunus cerasifera), though there is also evidence that domestica was solely descended from the latter. Prunus insititia is still, however, occasionally regarded as a separate (entirely native) species. It is possible that the bullace is genuinely native to the United Kingdom: the horticulturalist Harold Taylor, in his book The Plums of England, described it as "the only truly English plum", observing that all other hybrid varieties of plum and damson had at least some non-native origins.
Although once cultivated, the bullace gradually fell out of favour as newer, larger or sweeter types of damson or plum displaced it, and it hung on at the fringes of cultivation. Its hardiness meant that, like the damson, it was occasionally planted as a windbreak or hedging tree.
Four main varieties of bullace are recognised in England: the White, Black, Shepherd's and Langley. There is, however, a wide variation between trees found in different districts. Bullaces generally ripen in October-November, rather later than other types of plum. They may sometimes be found growing wild in woods or hedgerows, particularly near old farmhouses; others may be found in old gardens or orchards, or can still be purchased from some nurseries.
This variety has relatively large round fruit, ripening by October to a grass green or yellowish green colour, with small red spots on the sunward side. It was formerly common in Kent and Essex and may still be found in hedgerows in eastern England.
The White Bullace has small, yellowish fruit, with greenish flesh. A very old variety, it was once known in Cambridgeshire by the odd name "crex". It was grown in large quantities in Norfolk in the 19th century, for use in preserving or cooking. It is also occasionally referred to as the "Golden Bullace".
The Black Bullace is the common "wild" bullace of woods in England, recognisable by its small, round black or dark purple fruit. It can be quite astringent until very ripe or subject to a slight frost. A larger variety known as the "New Black Bullace" was later developed from it.
The Langley Bullace, or "Veitch's Black Bullace", was first raised in 1902 by the Veitch nurseries at Langley, Berkshire. It was a cross between an Orleans plum and the Farleigh damson. This is the largest and (when ripe, which occurs in November) sweetest variety, and is not considered a 'true' bullace in some sources.
Abercrombie and Mawe, writing in 1779, described three types of bullace, the "white", "black" and "red". Robert Hogg described an "Essex Bullace", which appears identical to the Shepherd's Bullace.
Bullaces are often stated to only be suitable for cooking. As well as being used for stewing and making various fruit preserves, they were also traditionally used to make fruit wine. However, some bullaces are palatable raw if sufficiently ripe.
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- ^ RHS Complete Gardener's Manual, Dorling Kindersley, 2011, p.266