Small, oval leaves with a slightly sticky top surface and hairy underlay. Up to 5cm long with slightly serrated leaf edges.
Blossoming into five white petals from the stem, the flowers are found singularly or in pairs in the Spring.
Rich dark purpley-blue with a waxed finish, much sought after by wild birds in the winter. The fruit is 75% stone and 25% olive-green, juicy flesh.
A spiny tree or bush, with dense prickly branches.
Growing up to 4 meters tall, the Blackthorn grows in most terrains, the exception being in highly acidic soil. Sloes are a late autumn fruit and its best to leave them as long as possible before picking. This will be when they’re at their most fruity and juicy and some of that tartness will have mellowed.
Traditionally, sloes are said to be best picked after the first frost, as this softens their skins, helping them to release their juices. These days, sloes are generally ready to pick sooner, therefore you can get round this by freezing an early picking of sloes before use.
Late Autumn / Early Winter
March – May
Part of the cherry and plum family, sloes bring a rich tart, fruity flavour to dishes, best utilised as a flavouring for wines and spirits, jellies, syrups, and chocolate.
Sloes are edible when raw – but are not for the faint hearted. Most would avoid eating these straight off the bush – but if you are feeling adventurous you can take a bite – when eaten fresh they have a sour, bitter flavour which most likely will dry up your mouth (not pleasant!).
Sloes are full of natural pectin, so adding a few sloes to any preserve will help it to set.
Most foraged sloes are transformed into autumnal sloe gin – which is very simple and requires just three ingredients: sloes, gin and sugar. However, you do need a pinch of patience to achieve the very best results – it takes two to three months for the flavours to infuse (but is so worth the wait).
This waxy purple fruit is jam packed with healthy nutrients – high in both vitamins C and E, potassium, magnesium and calcium – which supports healthy bones, eyesight, digestive system and your heart. Sloe berries also contain antioxidants which can reduce incidences of chronic disease and help with rash irritation.
In Celtic folklore, the blackthorn is associated with the dark aspects of the year, often linked to the winter months and the Celtic festival of Samhain. It is also considered a sacred tree in Druidic traditions.
These berries have a long history of use in traditional medicine and folklore. In European traditions, sloe berries were believed to have protective qualities, and amulets made from the wood of the blackthorn were thought to ward off evil spirits.
The blackthorn and its sloe berries have also found their way into literature and mythology. In Irish folklore, the blackthorn is associated with the fairy world, and it is said that cutting down a blackthorn tree could bring misfortune or anger the fairies. The use of blackthorn wood in the crafting of magical staffs and wands is a recurring theme in various folktales.
Overall, the blackthorn and sloe berries hold a special place in the cultural and folkloric tapestry of many regions, embodying a blend of mysticism, tradition, and practical uses throughout history.
Raw sloes are high in tannins, which gives them a super astringent feel when consumed. It’s also worth noting that most species of the ‘Prunus’ family contain traces of hydrogen cyanide, which causes the bitter taste in a sloe. This can be harmful in high doses, causing respiratory problems. Generally speaking, the amount within a sloe is highly unlikely to cause any problems, especially when sloes are generally not consumed raw. In fact, many fruits and jams in supermarkets also contain traces of this chemical – commonly found in the pip or stone of fruits such as cherries, peaches and plums.
A pair of gloves goes a long way – the blackthorn is certainly a prickly plant and if you choose to forage this wild ingredient, precautions are always advised!
Positive identification is the most important part of foraging. If you are not 100% certain you have identified your finds correctly, please be sure to consult numerous sources and if in doubt – leave it out.
Foraging for sloes can be confusing for some, with Damsons and Bullaces similar in appearance. Luckily both of these are edible so there will be no danger posed as such.
Damsons hang from the tree more like a plum and are slightly more oval in shape, whereas the Bullace is a larger fruit that has significantly less amount of thorns. Both lookalike fruits are larger than sloes.
Many of our Cookery Courses include a short foraging walk as part of the day, introducing you to a handful of commonly found wild ingredients.
Essential if you’re picking on private land. As with everything, respect is key and goes a long way.
If in doubt, leave it out.
Why rush? Nature isn’t going anywhere! Take time to ensure you safely identify your finds.
One step at a time.
No one becomes an expert overnight. Build up your identification skills and your confidence will grow.
Enjoy the process.
Foraging is not only about what you pick but the experience – Immerse yourself in nature and appreciate the little things. The fresh air, birds chirping, a light breeze or the feel of soil beneath your feet.
With an abundance of forage at your doorstep, why not start local?
The 10% rule.
Only take what you need (or 10% of what is available). This not only means that you leave plenty for other foragers, but also local wildlife. We want to enjoy our ecosystem not damage it.
Leave room for regrowth.
Never uproot a plant so that it is always able to regrow after you have foraged from it.
Wash before consumption.
Always give your foraging finds a good wash before consuming, especially when picking on busy routes/path.