Blackthorn is one of those unassuming trees easy to pass by without realising it’s full potential or history. Maybe that’s because it often takes it’s place among a cast of common hedging trees and grows more like a shrub rather than a tall stand alone tree. The vicious thorns and impenetrable growth make this an uncompromising member of our hedgerow species, prized where boundaries are asserted and livestock contained.
The wood can make stunningly beautiful walking sticks and crooks. Dense, hard hitting blackthorn is the preferred choice for the Irish Shilelagh, a walking stick with a history of being used as a weapon thanks to a club end fashioned from the bulbous root wood.
The crown of thorns at the crucifixion is believed to have been made from blackthorn. In medieval times, the tree became associated with witchcraft and followers of the occult. Followers of the Devil are said to have drawn blood from their fingers using blackthorn in a macabre ritual of allegiance.
It’s not all sinister though. The fruits (sloes) and foliage have traditionally been used in wide range of medicines to treat a variety of ailments including kidney complaints and making sloe gin and whiskey make for a sumptuous annual event!
Sloes can be harvested from late September to make delicious sloe gin or whiskey in time for Christmas and New Year.
Making An Identification
The bark has a coarse, almost scaly, appearance and is often dull with a green residue on it. The leaves are oval in shape and blackthorn is deciduous meaning the leaves will fade to yellow and cast in the autumn months.
The thorns will be visible throughout the year and their substantial appearance is more than capable of being backed up by their strength and sharpness! The big giveaway for blackthorn at this time of year (autumn) are the fruiting sloes.
Some describe them as looking like oversized blueberries whilst for a lot of people they have the appearance of a small dullish damsen. They are dark purple, becoming almost black, in colour and often have a dusty appearance.
Sloes are said to ripen after the first frosts, however they can be harvested towards the end of September and the effect of frost mimicked by freezing and thawing before use.
This can also help steal a march on any other fellow foragers who have discovered the same cache as you but who may be waiting a little longer for the frost to arrive!
Think ahead as to how you will safely harvest sloes. Following many years of outdoor and tree work, I can safely say that an old wool or tweed country hat is essential (so it becomes snagged on the thorns rather than one’s rapidly thinning scalp!) as is a decent thorn proof coat.
You can buy fruit pickers to keep your fingers away from the thorns but the real hazard seems to come when reaching or moving through a hedge to get at the sloes rather than the act of picking itself.
It’s said that thorn wounds can turn septic. Although I have not personally experienced that, in previous years I have received numerous cuts/scratches in short order when undertaking hedge work containing blackthorn.
Don’t chance it, the potential to receive some nasty wounds is there so dress for the occasion!
Buy some gin or whiskey (as cheap as you like) and caster sugar. Get your hands on a large sealable jar and discover how to make some delicious sloe gin in time for the new year with this article!