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Prunus spinosa

Rose Family [Rosaceae]  

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Berries: berryZpossible        berryZbluish / berryZblack  (astringent, hard, in-edible, used in sloe-gin)
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20th May 2013, High Bradfield, Derbyshire. Photo: © RWD
Flowers very early in the year before the leaves emerge, usually in March (2013 started cold with March 2013 being the coldest March on record, so flowering was delayed).

20th May 2013, High Bradfield, Derbyshire. Photo: © RWD
Blackthorn is a tall tree-like shrub which is used as a hedge (foreground) able to withstand all blooded livestock including man by means of its dense stiff branches with their long sharp spines.

16th Sept 2009, Silverdale, Lancs. Photo: © RWD
Often grows on sea-top cliffs. Reaches up to 4m tall. Almost impenetrably thick.

16th Sept 2009, Silverdale, Lancs. Photo: © RWD
A straggly branch with leaves and sloe berries.

25th Sept 2009, Duddon Valley, Cumbria. Photo: © RWD
Picking Sloes is a hazardous business, the thicket is dense and very thorny, and any skin punctures can be slow to heal and may go septic.

6th Aug 2009, Dyserth, Prestatyn, N. Wales. Photo: © RWD
The thorns are long, stiff and sharp, the leaves are arched backwards, and slightly serrated with forwards pointing teeth. Sloes are covered by a steely blue bloom, which is actually a natural yeast rather than any mould. These yeasts contribute to the flavour of sloes so are to be welcomed rather than washed off.

20th May 2013, High Bradfield, Derbyshire. Photo: © RWD
The thorns are about 5cm long and very sharp!

25th Sept 2009, Duddon Valley, Cumbria. Photo: © RWD
The steely bloom is removed on handling. They are impossibly bitter and astringent to eat. Best marinated with gin for a year, then removed before drinking.

19th April 2008, T & M Canal, Harecastle Tunnel towpath. Photo: © RWD
Un-opened flower buds early April. The older branches are very gnarly, often covered in lichen.

19th April 2008, T & M Canal, Harecastle Tunnel towpath. Photo: © RWD
The root of the thorns and branches are usually encircled by three rings.

19th April 2008, T & M Canal, Harecastle Tunnel towpath. Photo: © RWD
The flowers emerge late March before the leaves, making for a stark contrast with the near-black branches.

19th April 2008, T & M Canal, Harecastle Tunnel towpath. Photo: © RWD
Flowers are white with five petals and numerous stamens bearing yellow pollen.

Hybridizes with :

  • Cherry Plum (Prunus cerasifera) Trees to produce Prunus × simmleri (which has no common name).
  • Wild Plum (Prunus domestica) Trees to produce Prunus × fruticans (which also has no common name).

Distinguishing Feature : The marble-sized, rock-hard, bitter, steely-blue-bloomed blackish berries which appear rather later later autumn. The scratches on hands and arms inflicted whilst trying to pick them.

Not to be confused with: Buckthorn or Sea-Buckthorn [shrubs or trees with similar names].

Some similarities to: Bullace otherwise known as Damson (Prunus domestica subsp. institia), but that has not got long thorns, and the fruit (damson) is both larger and softer than are sloes.

The flowers emerge before the leaves, in late March, two weeks after Cherry Plum and a month before Hawthorn. The black berries which appear in September have a steely blue bloom that is removed on handling. The 'spinosa' part of the binomial name (the specific epithet) refers to the sharp spines on the branches.

The berries are far too bitter (and hard!) to eat, and are best left in a bottle of gin for a year with a little sugar to taste, then removed before drinking. Bletted berries make for a better sloe gin, that is, it is best not to pick them until after the first frosts (although, with warming Winters, this might be never). If there is no natural frost, bletting can be performed by cycling them alternately in a freezer and refridgerator for a fortnight before pricking the sloes and pickling them in gin. Remove and discard the berries before drinking, they are too bitter, but can be used to make a (gin-flavoured) jam afterwards.

The Blackthorn thicket is almost impenetrable and is used as hedging especially around the lanes backing on to farmers fields constraining livestock (it is a little untidy for garden hedges).

The fruits are characterised by a high concentration of phenolic acids (such as Gallic Acid), which explains their high bitterness, although other phenolic compounds will also contribute, such as flavonoids and anthocyanins. Altogether, they contain 2 coumarins, 3 phenolic acids, 6 flavonols and 14 flavan-3-ols.


Both a blue and a permanent red dye can be obtained from the berries and were used to dye wool and as an indelible ink for writing. The fruits contain several anthocyanins and anthocyanidins such as Cyanidin-3-O-Rutinoside, Chrysanthemim (Cyanidin-3-O-Glucoside) and Peonidin-3-O-Glucoside, and it will be these that are responsible for the dark blue-black colour of the berries.

  Prunus spinosa  ⇐ Global Aspect ⇒ Rosaceae  

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Prunus spinosa

Rose Family [Rosaceae]  

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