Sleeping Beauty enjoyed her long nap undisturbed thanks to the thorn hedge surrounding her castle. While this fairy tale cast those thorns as the villain of the piece, farmers of olden and present days rely on them to keep their livestock from straying, and rustlers and predators away.
Many of the hedges we see today are made up of one of two thorny species: the hawthorn and the black thorn. While hawthorn is commonly recognised, the neglected black thorn is often overlooked by the casual observer.
Prunus spinosa – the black thorn, whose fruits are highly astringent, yet delicious if treated right – can be seen in flower between March and April. Flowering at the same time as the wild cherry, its frothy white blossoms are visible from the road in many a hedgerow. The blossoms precede the leaves, and are an early source of nectar for insects.
It’s in autumn, however, that the black thorn enjoys its moment of fame. A walk in the countryside at this time of year will yield bushes of dark berries which cling close to their stems. The thin-skinned fruits have a small, hard plum-like pit and yield dark, purple juice which stains clothes and fingers alike.
The fruits, called sloes, resemble blueberries at first glance, as they often have a greyish bloom coating their skins. The berries are inedible straight off the bush, as they are incredibly sour. They are more palatable after the first frosts, or after freezing.
Evidence of the early use of sloes by man is found in the famous case of a 5,300-year-old human mummy discovered in 1991 in the Otztal Alps along the Austrian-Italian border (nick-named Otzi): among the stomach contents were sloes. Source
Many people will have heard of ‘Sloe Gin’ and it is this use of sloes most people have heard of. Sloe gin is more a liqueur than an actual gin and is made by infusing neat gin with fresh sloe berries and sugar. But this is not its only use. Sloes can be made into wine or jam, added to fruit pies, or used as a dye. Juice from the skins has also been used as an ink. Sloes steeped in vinegar produce a delicious alternative to red-wine or sherry vinegar. They can be presevered to produce a pickle similar in taste to Japanese umeboshi.
Sloes are high in vitamin C and anti-oxidants. Sloe syrup can help with flu and help rheumatism. The berries can help with stomach cramp and to break up kidney stones. Do not eat the pits, as they break down in water to produce harmful hydrocyanic acid.