Tree of the month: Blackthorn

Two nights ago the moon was new so according to this version of the Ogham ‘tree calendar’, we’re now in the Month of the Blackthorn. You might choose to follow my ‘ogham’ tag for other posts in this series.

The ancient Celts used their Ogham alphabet for various purposes but they don’t seem to have associated a calendar with it. That use of the Ogham is a 19th century invention! I like this calendar, though. It directs attention to a different species for each lunar month. So today, let’s admire the blackthorn.

The blackthorn (Prunus spinosa) is a small shrub native to Britain. It’s often found in mixed, semi-natural hedges. Blackthorn makes a good livestock barrier (keeping the animals where you want them) because it’s a dense shrub with vicious thorns.

Blackthorn is a good hedging plant also because you can lay it. Here’s a film about the traditional craft of hedgelaying. Hedges are still laid in Britain, by contractors and by conservation volunteers because properly managed hedges are both functional and beautiful.

The name ‘blackthorn’ can be confusing, since this shrub has lovely white flowers in spring. It’s the bark which is so dark that it’s almost black. So is the fruit: the sloe. Sloes were in season here until a week or two ago. I once tried to eat a sloe fresh from the hedge and believe me, you do that only once. It was the sourest fruit I’d ever tasted. But don’t be put off this wild food.

If you gathered sloes you might have made the classic liqueur sloe gin. But you won’t be drinking this year’s sloe gin this year. Keep it at least until next year. In fact, keep it for several years to enjoy it at its best. Meanwhile I suggest that you smile sweetly at anybody you know who’s been storing their sloe gin. It tastes of plums. [Edit] You might want to see my fellow blogger Finn Holding’s tale of gathering sloes and making sloe gin. When you’ve drunk all the homemade sloe gin, use the fruit that’s left in the bottle to make more treats. And don’t drive just after eating them.

You don’t have to restrict your sloe pleasure to the booze. Here are some other sloe recipes. Of course you won’t be making these for gastronomic pleasure. All your attention will be on the beautiful landscapes, the wildlife corridors and the safely enclosed livestock.

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About argylesock

I wrote a PhD about veterinary parasitology so that's the starting point for this blog. But I'm now branching out into other areas of biology and into popular science writing. I'll write here about science that happens in landscapes, particularly farmland, and about science involving interspecific interactions. Datasets and statistics get my attention. Exactly where this blog will lead? That's a journey that I'm on and I hope you'll come with me.
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9 Responses to Tree of the month: Blackthorn

  1. Finn Holding says:

    Great post Sam. There’s an ancient right of way a couple of hundred yards from here called Guns Lane sections of which are lined with blackthorn whence I harvest my sloes. I didn’t get round to it this year which is dreadfully remiss, so no sloe gin this time round. But I did make some a couple of years ago which I posted about here: http://thenaturephile.com/2010/11/24/guns-lane/.

    BTW have you ever managed to keep a bottle for more than a few weeks or months? 😉

    • argylesock says:

      Ok confession time: I never actually made sloe gin. Just drank other people’s! I like the ones you can buy in shops too, now that it’s become trendy. In fact just after posting the above, I told my partner who immediately fetched some bottles from the cellar… my health isn’t going to let me hit the hard stuff this evening but there’s tomorrow…

      You seem to have drunk your sloe gin very ‘young’. Perhaps one year, you’ll manage to let a bottle of it mature and find out whether it’s true that it improves with age.

      Talking of time: I’d barely posted the above when you clicked ‘Like’. You’re a fast mover aren’t you?!

  2. Carol Hague says:

    I’m not a great fan of alcohol ordinarily (I don’t hate it or anything, but it’s something i can take or leave) but sloe gin is one of the drinks I liked much more than others when I tried it. Sadly, I don’t know of anywhere to gather sloes near my house so I haven’t had the chance to make my own yet, but I wouldn’t mind giving it a go one day.

    I winder if the quality of the gin used matters or if the sloes make up for any lack in that regard….

    • argylesock says:

      According to one of the recipes I read (Finn’s?) the quality of the gin makes no difference! Anyway you might like ready-made sloe gin which is now available in supermarkets. It’s lovely.

      • Carol Hague says:

        Thank you! I shall look out for some. Our local “supermarket” is a Budgens and I think they have aspirations of becoming some sort of posh grocers as they tend to have some quite exotic stuff, so they may well have it in – on the downside their prices can be on the exorbitant side! There’s always Sainsbo’s otherwise of course 🙂

  3. It’s a toss up between Blackthorn and Hawthorn for my favourite tree vote. It is so stunning in blossom, one of the earliest treats. We have one by our front gate. I drank some sloe gin which was 5 years old – lovely! Great post.

    • argylesock says:

      Yes that blossom is so cheering when spring comes, isn’t it? I like hawthorn blossom too, esp when white-flowered and pink-flowered shrubs are together in a hedge. Thanks for the compliment about my writing.

  4. Pingback: Mistletoe | Science on the Land

  5. narf77 says:

    I remember seeing Hugh Fearnlley Whittingstall having a hazelnut coppiced and I think I would rather coppice a suckering hazelnut tree than sloes after Steve and I went collecting sloes to make sloe vodka (we don’t like gin) and came back looking like Freddy Krueger had been invading our nocturnals! Another good reason why sloes are good to plant is that they will grow virtually anywhere and are amazing bird habitat…who would want to invade Poland if it was as spiny as hell? ;). I didn’t find raw sloes particularly sour (maybe mine were riper?) but I did find them incredibly astringent (like green persimmons) and they suck the moisture right out of your mouth. Much nicer when having been soaked in vodka, then being liberated briefly and almost instantly plunged into port to enliven it and once they have done their bit there, you remove the stones (not much left after you do that 😉 ) and dip the drunken flesh into melted chocolate…not a bad result from such a humble fruit. Sloes are quite easy to find here in Tasmania because as one of our first ports of settlement and having similar climactic conditions (occasionally 😉 ) we have lots of deciduous trees and many U.K. staples. There are some lovely examples of hawthorn hedging interspersed with Prunus spinosa in the North of Tasmania (where I live) and sloe scrumping is quite easy if you are willing to take a drive with a keen eyed passenger 😉

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