Kea plums have been grown for at least 300 years in orchards along two creek sides near Truro. There are four local plums found here – the predominant one being the black Kea plum together with the less common red and grey fruited forms.
In addition a small sweet yellow-brown plum called Crystal is found on a few trees that cling to the side of the estuary – even on occasions dipping their branches in the water. The black Kea plum is relatively small and has been highly prized locally as culinary plums for jam production. Before modern-day ease of transport people used to travel from as far as Redruth and Helston to obtain plums for jam making. The area was rather isolated until 1938 when a road was built to one of creek side villages. Previously villagers relied on river transport to move the fruit.
There are still mysteries surrounding the origin of Kea Plums – they are similar to damsons – but only a thorough scientific investigation will reveal their origins. A small and now inconspicuous corrugated iron shed was once upon a time a hive of activity in August and September when it was once used as a canning factory. The people who lived and worked in the creek side hamlets around the orchards earned their living from a diversity of jobs. I spoke to one elderly couple a few years ago who explained their year; harvesting plums and apples between August and the autumn; oyster fishing under licence from October to March and then getting permission to bark young oak shoots on the Tregothnan estate in the spring (the bark was sent to the local tannery which closed around the millennium).
The rest of the time was taken up with normal fishing and tending the orchards. Unfortunately it is harder to make a living from this combination of activities these days.
Current position – Future potential
The Kea plum and apple orchards hug the slopes around the quiet settlements around the creek side partially on the Tregothnan Estate. Imagine a quiet backwater only disturbed by babbling water from streams entering the creeks and the sound of ducks dabbling and distant screech of herons and a solitary cry of a curlew.
An area time forgot, with characteristic white painted Cornish cottages and diverse flora. This is a description of the creek side orchards where Kea plums are cultivated today. The pink flowers of Butterbur Petasites hybridus are present on the Cornish hedge walls surrounding the orchards in late January, and there are little patches of violets here and there together with patches of translucent seed membranes and flowers of honesty Lunaria annua. The first few daffodil and Primula flowers are appearing. Within some of the orchards daffodils are in bud, still in rows that they were planted in many years ago. The creek side paths run in tunnels formed by the arching branches of oak trees whose root systems exposed in the crumbling silt banks overhead. The shiny fresh green leaves of Navelwort form cascades in places underneath the roots of the oaks overhead. Later in May the floor of some of the orchards is a riot of colour from bluebells and purple orchids.
Philip McMillan Browse and I played a role in the initial catalysing and advised on the subsequent restoration programme by Tregothnan Estate. I have been interested in the social history and fruit crop biodiversity of the area for several years and the economic potential of a revived Kea plum and local apple industry as an asset to the Cornish rural economy.
Tregothnan estate is investing in the future of the Kea Plum with a professional orchardists and a management plan to ensure the long-term viability of the plums. As a first step of restoration to production the initial orchards are being cleared of scrubby undergrowth.
Culinary possibilities of Kea plums
Black Kea plums have distinctive and special culinary qualities which should help the revival in their fortunes. Not only do they make excellent jam, but they also make very good wine, which at first tastes fruity at the front of the mouth but then seems to trigger every other sense on the palate except for saltines as you swallow it. Tregothnan believes creating fine products from the plums will ensure a vibrant market for the crops. Some products are likely to be approved for the Tregothnan range, for example Kea Plum Ice-cream and Kea Plum Preserve. Other beverages and foods are in development. Kea plum chutney and jam is also made by Crellow.