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Plants from the Ground Up

Prunus spinosa—Sloe/Blackthorn

Prunus spinosa fruit

A longtime friend of man, Prunus spinosa is a wonderfully thorny (spinosa meaning spines), thicket-forming shrub or small tree. Single, white rose-like flowers appear in masses in early spring before the leaves begin to emerge. The flowers are hermaphroditic (meaning they are both male and female) and are pollinated by insects. The leaves are simple ovals with alternate arrangement and have a serrated margin; their dark-green color complements the very dark brown bark. Long dark spines give it the common name of Blackthorn, its other common name Sloe, is a variant of the Old English slāh. Lovely orange fall color is accented by the dark purple fruits (botanically drupes) that somewhat resemble damson plums. Once the fruit is bletted (softened by frost), usually in October or November, it is ready for the making of Sloe gin if you are in the UK, Pacharan if in Spain, Epinē in France or Bargolino in Italy! Sloe is native to Europe and W. Asia and has naturalized in new Zealand and North America.

Prunus spinosa flower

Prunus spinosa and humans have had a long and interesting relationship, Blackthorn has been part of mans folklore, diet, medicine cabinet and toolshed. I was amazed to learn that the pits of Sloe were one of the things found in the stomach of Ötzi  the so call “Iceman”. The branches were burned in Old English ceremonies to rid the wheat fields of the devil. The Irish held the belief that Blackthorn was home to and guarded by a certain tribe of “little people” known as the ‘Lunantishee’ and that to take branches between May 11 and November 11th would bring one bad luck. More practical human uses have been walking sticks, cattle proof hedges, excellent firewood, the Irish fighting clubs know as ‘shillelagh’, the fruit produces a mordant free dye, and lets not forget the aforementioned liquors.

Prunus spinosa leaves

Sloe is a fantastic plant for the mixed hedgerow, just avoid planting it in tight space or too close to walkways. I for one would love to see this plant brought back to common usage. Prunus spinosa is adaptable to many soil types, no wet feet please and produces best in full sun. USDA Hardiness zones 4-9. It can be propagated by seed or softwood cuttings.

If you would like to try your hand at making Sloe check out this link: It’s time to make your sloe gin
If you would like to make Bargolino click: Bargnolino– Sloe berries

For more photos and available sizes, see Prunus spinosa – Sloe/blackthorn at the Forestfarm Store.

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