Blackthorn (Prunus spinosa) is the earliest of our native flowering trees.

In late February and early March it is very distinctive: masses of creamy white blossom on bare black branches. In April, the small nondescript leaves will open and the plant becomes just one of the many spiny and spiked elements in our hedgerows. In the autumn, blackthorn will once again be easily identified by the blue-black fruits we call sloes.

The flowers [1], leaves [2] and fruit [3] of Prunus spinosa

Sloes are very bitter but become more palatable after the first frost. Neolithic peoples dried them to sweeten them and archaeologists have found straw-lined pits full of sloe-stones, which suggests a method of preservation we no longer understand.

The blue part of a sloe’s blue-black colour is a bloom of yeast; sloes will ferment on the tree and intoxicate the birds that eat them. While there is no proof, it is hard to believe that Neolithic people didn’t make sloe wine.

[4] the long thorns of blackthorn; [5] an assortment of blackthorn shillelaghs.

We have traditionally used every part of the blackthorn tree. Its long sharp thorns, hardened in urine or in a chimney, were used as pins, skewers and awls. Its tough and resilient wood was used to make tool handles; the earliest examples we have date from the Roman period.

And it has has been used to make blunt instruments, cudgels, knobkerries and shillelaghs, for a lot longer than that. With judicious pruning and a little patience, blackthorn will eventually produce a lethal weapon: a thick knobbly stick with a lump of rock-hard root on the end. While you wait, enjoy your sloe wine and admire its beautiful spring flowers.

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