Sloes by Vanessa Armstrong
On my daily walk with my dog, one of the places that I frequent is the shore. It’s only about 10 minutes’ walk from my house and I’m very fortunate that there are also fields that run along the shoreline in parts and of course, that means lots of hedgerows too. This time of year is wonderful as all the fruits start to ripen – mainly blackberries and crab apple, but there are also a lot of sloe trees too!
Sloe trees isn’t really the correct term for them – it’s called the blackthorn or Prunus Spinosa to give it its botanical name. Sloes is the name of the fruit that it produces. To me, Sloes are rather an old-fashioned fruit to have – a bit like Meddlers, but I’m sure that there are many properties, myths and uses for sloes – apart from making sloe gin – which is why I picked a huge bag of them on a recent walk.
The Blackthorn is a member of the rose family. It is native to Europe, Western Asia and Northwest Africa. It’s a quite dense shrub which can grow to around 16ft tall. The slows grow together on spiny, stiff branches and are bigger than a blueberry but smaller than a plum. They are black with a bluey bloom to them. They are usually ripe by about autumn and ready to harvest, traditionally after the first frosts in October, but as our seasons are all over the place at the moment, the ones I had picked were ripe now. I would imagine that they wouldn’t be particularly good come October – or indeed, if we were to get any frosts!
The sloe has an astringency to them, which means that they are dry to the taste and not very pleasant. This is caused by tannins which are present in the fruit and are there to deter eating until fully ripe.
As I mentioned earlier, the sloes I picked are nicely steeping in just under a litre of gin and they can also be added to vodka too. The Spanish make the sloes into a liquor called pacharan and in France, a similar beverage is made with sloes which they call prunelle which is the common name of the shrub there. Sloes can also be made into jams, chutneys and is also an ingredient in fruit pies. Sloes make an excellent natural dye too – adding them to linen or cotton will give them a blue hue once the fabric has been washed.
All parts of the blackthorn are used for their healing properties. The bark contains astringent properties, the juice from the berries make for a wonderful syrup for sore throats, coughs and mouth ulcers and the flowers can be made into teas to help as a diuretic, laxative and anti-inflammatory aid.
Blackthorn, rather than its berries, has many magical properties – protection and purification. Meditating on blackthorn will rid you of negative thoughts. The berries themselves can be used in charm bags and spell work for dispelling negativity and for protection. The berries should be dried first.
The flowering of the blackthorn is associated with Imbolc but the blackthorn itself is associated with Samhain. The shrub was and still is associated with witchcraft and was considered to be a tree of ‘ill-omen’. Witches and heretics were said to be burned on blackthorn pyres. It is a shrub that is connected to the darker side of the craft, the waning and dark moons and working with the crone or dark gods and goddesses. In Scotland it is associated with the Cailleach and winter will come when she has struck the ground with her blackthorn staff!
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