Blackthorn (Prunus spinosa)
We have many blackthorn trees growing on Wilden Marsh, particularly along its Wilden Lane boundary
The shrub, with its savage thorns, is traditionally used in Britain and other parts of Northern Europe to make a cattle-proof hedge.
The fruit is similar to a small damson or plum, suitable for preserves, but rather tart and astringent for eating, unless it is picked after the first few days of autumn frost. This effect can be reproduced by freezing harvested sloes.
The juice is used in the manufacture of spurious port wine, and used as an adulterant to impart roughness to genuine port. In rural Britain, so-called sloe gin is made from the fruit, though this is not a true gin, but an infusion of gin with the fruit and sugar to produce a liqueur. In Navarre, Spain, a popular liqueur called pacharán is made with sloes. In France a similar liqueur called épine or épinette or troussepinette is made from the young shoots in spring. In Italy, the infusion of spirit with the fruits and sugar produces a liqueur called bargnolino (or sometimes prunella) – as well as in France where it is called “prunelle” or “veine d’épine noire”. Wine made from fermented sloes is made in Britain, and in Germany and other central European countries. Sloes can also be made into jam and, used in fruit pies, and if preserved in vinegar are similar in taste to Japanese umeboshi. The juice of the fruits dyes linen a reddish colour that washes out to a durable pale blue.
Blackthorn makes an excellent fire wood that burns slowly with a good heat and little smoke. The wood takes a fine polish and is used for tool handles and canes. Straight blackthorn stems have traditionally been made into walking sticks or clubs (known in Ireland as a shillelagh). In the British Army, blackthorn sticks are carried by commissioned officers of the Royal Irish Regiment; the tradition also occurs in Irish regiments in some Commonwealth countries.
The leaves resemble tea leaves, and were used as an adulterant of tea. Shlomo Yitzhaki, a Talmudist and Tanakh commentator of the High Middle Ages, writes that the sap (or gum) of P. spinosa (which he refers to as the prunellier) was used as an ingredient in the making of some inks used for manuscripts.
The fruit stones have been found in Swiss lake dwellings. 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 Ötztal Alps along the Austrian-Italian border (nick-named Ötzi): among the stomach contents were sloes.
The flowering of the blackthorn might have been associated with the ancient Celtic celebration of Imbolc. (Source: Wikipedia)