Name: Prunus spinosa
Blackthorn is a thorny shrub of hedgerows and woodland edges. It bursts into life in March and April when masses of white flowers appear. During the autumn and winter, deep purple fruits (known as ‘sloes’) ripen on its branches. Blackthorn is an important species for all kinds of wildlife, but is especially vital for the rare Black Hairstreak butterfly who lays its eggs in Blackthorn hedges. Here, they overwinter and the caterpillars emerge in spring ready to feed on the Blackthorn. Widespread in Britain southwards of Sutherland and Caithness and reaching altitudes of up to 415m in Yorkshire.
Elsewhere, this shrub is found in Europe with the exceptions of the far north and north-east, and extends as far east as Iran. It also occurs in south-western Siberia. Blackthorn is related to the plums.
With a shrub height of 1-4m, its typical habitats include hedgerows, woodlands, scrub, cliff slopes and screes. On shingle beaches a prostrate form of blackthorn may occur. This shrub can tolerate a wide range of soil types. It doesn’t like heavy shade, but will provide protection for smaller plants growing underneath, and withstands strong winds. As it doesn’t mind wet either it is a good plant for coastal areas. Will thrive on quite poor soil but doesn’t like chalk. Blackthorn sends up many suckers which can be controlled by mowing, unless you particularly want a dense thicket.
Blackthorn Prunus spinosa is a common shrub in Great Britain (often called a sloe tree), found in most hedgerows, often near Hawthorn, which it superficially resembles. Blackthorn almost always bears its small white flowers before the leaves appear (see above). But, it’s the fierce thorns which make it famous. These thorns are exceptionally large and sharp with a brittle tip, which inevitably snaps off should they pierce your skin. This then turns septic and can be quite sore. I used to work with Blackthorn quite a lot, so have many scars to prove it; in fact about two years ago I almost lost my eye to one of these thorns whilst passing through a thicket.
BERRIES – the berries are known as ‘sloes’ and these are very popular for making ‘sloe gin’, a potent alcoholic drink which if made with lots of sugar is more like a liqueur. I eat them straight from the bush after the first frosts of the year, but most will find them too sour to pallet.
The small pretty flowers are best eaten raw, or crystallised for cake decorations
Sloe and Apple Jelly
Stew equal quantites of ripe sloes and green apples (skins and cores included) until soft, barely covering the fruit in the stew-pan with water. Strain through a jelly-bag.
To each pint of juice add 1lb of sugar. Bring to the boil and boil until a little sets when tested. This jelly has a piquant flavour quite its own and is delicious with mutton, hare or rabbit
Sloe and apple cheese
Make exactly as previous recipe, but put fruit through a sieve when cooked instead of through a jelly-bag. Add 14 oz of sugar to each pint of pulp.
3lb sloes (very ripe)
Cover sloes and apples with water. Bring to boil and boil until fruit is soft. Strain. To every pint of liquid add 1 1/2 lbs sugar. Bring to boil. Boil gently until a trial sample skins over. Be careful not to boil too long, as the extra sugar may make the jelly sugary.