When choosing a new fruit tree to plant, there are certain things I always bear in mind. The first is – is the fruit expensive or hard to find in the shops (such as mulberries and quince)? No point in giving valuable garden space to fruit which can be bought cheaply and easily. Next, the fruit must be utterly delicious. It motivates me to do all the menial upkeep, like winter washing and checking greasebands, if I know the reward at the end is worthwhile. And finally, if there is a little history involved or a good anecdote, all the better. If there is one fruit that gives a resounding ‘yes’ to all of these, it is the gage. When at their peak, they have a very short shelf-life, so you might be lucky enough to find them at a farmer’s market, but generally the big supermarkets don’t carry them. The fruit is divine, rich and sugary and described by the Victorian fruit expert Robert Hogg as ‘tender, melting… most delicious flavour’. As for history… stones found on a shipwreck, confusion over who introduced them to the UK and the favourite fruit of a 16th century French Queen… gages have it in spades!
Green gages probably originated in Armenia. By the early 1500’s they spread west through Greece and Italy until they reached France. So besotted was Queen Claude, the wife of Francis 1, that she planted several trees at her Chateau in Blois in the Loire Valley, and to this day they are still known in France as ‘Reine Claude’ plums. Gage stones were found on the wreck of the Mary Rose which sank in 1545, so the fruit was certainly know in the UK at this time, but probably only as a form of plum.
In 1724 Sir William Gage imported some fruit trees from France for his estate at Hengrave Hall, near Bury St Edmunds. It is said that one tree had its label missing, and when the fruit was cropped a few years later the small green fruit were named in his honour.
However, gages are not all green! Some turn a lovely translucent yellow when ripe, whilst others are flushed with dark burgundy red. It is hard to distinguish between a plum and a gage from a horticultural point of view, as they are all members of the same family. I think the best definition is that a gage is a dessert plum – the sweetness puts all other plums to shame, and even the well-loved Victoria plum has been described as ‘insipid and bland’ in comparison.
Growing and pruning:
Gages are very hardy, so can withstand the coldest of winters. However, like all plums they blossom in early Spring and the flowers are susceptible to frost damage. They will also require all the summer sun you can afford them, as it is this sunlight which forms the sugars in the fruit. They can be grown as a small free-standing tree in s sheltered garden, but otherwise fan-trained on a south or wet-facing wall is ideal.
Pruning is exactly the same as for all other stone fruit – that is, prune in summer only to avoid the dreaded silverleaf and bacterial canker. Remember that they fruit best on one year old wood, so don’t give the tree an all-over ‘haircut’. The only exception to this would be in the first year or two after planting a young tree, when you want to encourage good branch formation. In this case prune in a dry period in April – you’ll miss the period when the fungal disease spores are being carried by winter rains, but it is early enough in the year for the tree to respond to pruning with good new growth. Feed often in early Spring with a high potash fertiliser to encourage fruit set. Gages can be slightly shy to set fruit, especially when young, so build up potash reserves and starve of nitrogen to get the best possible crop.
When the fruit is this good, you can’t really go wrong with any variety – but the following are some of my personal favourites.
Jefferson’s Gage – a small yellow gage which develops light red freckles as it ripens. Discovered in 1830 in the United States and named after the third President. A naturally compact tree, this is ideal for fan-training or for the smaller garden. It does need a pollinating partner but any plum within a quarter of a mile will do. One of the more consistent croppers amongst the gage varieties.
Oullins Gage – a chance seedling discovered in France and introduced by the nurseryman Massot of Oullins in 1860. Citron vert fruit, utterly delicious, but a more vigorous tree than some of the others. A great choice if you have the room for it.
Original Green Gage. The original and still the very best flavoured gage you can get. Small green fruit which can turn a very pale yellow when fully ripe, each one bursting with juice and sugar. Not without its drawbacks, as it is not the most reliable cropper and it does need a pollinating partner, but if only the very best will do – this is the one to go for. The Cambridge gage is a good alternative if you want more reliable crops.
Goldfinch – bred from Jefferson’s Gage by the famous Laxton Brothers nursery in 1906, this has the wonderful flavour of its American parent, but is also partially self-fertile. One tree on its own will set a fruit (although the presence of another plum nearby will increase crops)
Golden Transparent –small yellow fruit sometimes mottled with pink red dots. Outstanding flavour, compact in growth and self-fertile too. My absolute favourite for an easy –to-grow gage.
Count Althann’s Gage – produced on the estate of Count Althann in Bohemia in the 1860’s, this is a richly coloured gage, deep crimson black when fully ripe. Lovely gage flavour and regular crops make this one a good choice.