The blackthorn (Prunus spinosa), also known as wild sloe is an ancient shrub widespread throughout Europe. Legends, beliefs, and ancient knowledge from popular traditions are associated with this shrub. It is an interesting plant for possible domestic cultivation as its strong thorns can be used as an effective protective barrier. Not to mention its delicious and numerous fruits, useful for making winter preserves.
Let’s learn more about this wild shrub and its fruits.
Botanical Description of the Blackthorn
Prunus spinosa is a thorny shrub with deciduous leaves, belonging to the botanical family Rosaceae.
The blackthorn generally has a bushy-spiny habit, although with proper pruning interventions, it can be shaped into a small tree.
It is a long-lived tree, living over 60 years, and its height can vary depending on the environment and growth form.
In the wild state, it has an irregular main stem, sometimes twisted, with strong basal sucker activity, favored by an impressive stoloniferous root system. The emission of basal suckers promotes the wild propagation of the blackthorn, to the extent that sometimes extensive and impenetrable vegetation patches can be found.
It has very strong wood, used in artisanal carpentry to make small tools. The bark is dark gray, almost black.
The branches, initially lighter in reddish color, are thin and very thorny. The thorns are sharp and acute, and sometimes form a tangle with the branches.
Leaves, Flowers, and Fruits
The light green leaves are simple and alternate, elliptical in shape. Their edges are serrated, and they have short petioles.
In autumn, it is lovely to observe the blackthorn leaves before they fall, when they turn a vibrant yellow.
The blackthorn is one of the first trees to bloom in spring. Thousands of white flowers appear as early as March, even before the leaves. The flowering continues throughout the month of May.
The flowers of Prunus spinosa are hermaphroditic and about 1-2 cm in size. They are grouped in threes on very short branches.
These flowers emit a delicate scent reminiscent of honey, which is also very pleasing to bees as they produce abundant nectar.
The fruit, which in color and size resembles a plum, is a spherical drupe. Its maximum diameter is 15 mm. The skin is covered with a light patina. Its color is bluish, tending to black near full maturity, which occurs in the heart of autumn.
Indeed, while the first fruits appear in summer, you must wait until October for them to become sweet and suitable for fresh consumption.
In the wild, of course, birds, foxes, and hares might feast on slightly more unripe fruits without being too subtle.
Wild sloe is a very hardy species that fears neither intense cold nor heat. It prefers sunny exposures, from flatlands up to 1800 meters in the mountains. It also doesn’t have great soil requirements, as it likes clay-limestone soils. It is found on the edges of woods, fallow fields, amidst thickets, and rocky places. But it’s not uncommon to find it in arid soils or abandoned vineyards.
Under optimal conditions, the blackthorn can, within a few years, form a dense hedge-like tangle that’s impenetrable for a human or a large animal. For this reason, in ancient times, farmers used this shrub to protect the boundaries of their lands. This idea is worth reconsidering today, given the continuous attacks by wild boars that threaten crops in many areas of Italy.
Legends and Popular Tradition
In the past, magical influences were attributed to the blackthorn. It was believed that both good and evil were harbored in the tangle of its branches. Having a blackthorn, with its thorn gift, meant protecting the dwelling from fire and lightning and the inhabitants of the house from illnesses.
In the reality of popular tradition, the blackthorn was extensively used in medicine, for example, to treat any type of infection caused by a wound. It was common in the woods to cut oneself and treat wounds with a berry paste. The bark, on the other hand, could be used as a febrifuge.
The flowers were employed as potent laxatives and vermifuges, as well as calming, diuretic, and purifying agents.
Properties and Uses in Natural Medicine
Today, the blackthorn is still used for its phytotherapeutic qualities. The parts used are the flowers and ripe fruits.
Both have laxative, diuretic, purifying, invigorating, and antispasmodic properties.
The flowers should be collected from the end of March, on dry days, and dried in a shaded place. With these flowers, an excellent purifying herbal tea is prepared, which has a draining function. The fresh fruits are harvested in full autumn, preferably after a frost, when they lose their slightly acidic taste. They are excellent laxatives, but they can also be dried using a convenient home dehydrator. If you’re looking for one, you can find a good model here.
Fresh blackthorn juice can also be used as an oral cavity antiseptic. Furthermore, it serves as an effective mouthwash that provides immediate relief in case of minor inflammations.
Uses in Cooking
In the kitchen, the blackthorn helps us rediscover popular traditions. Even the flower is edible; when soaked in water and sugar, it becomes a delightful spring treat. When the flower is dry, it can be used as a spice in various dessert preparations.
Additionally, excellent liqueurs or sweet syrups can be prepared using dried berries. With fresh fruit, you can also try making jams and preserves. So, let’s look forward to autumn months with some delicious recipes based on blackthorn.
- Acta poloniae pharmaceutica: “Flavonoids from the flowers of Prunus spinosa L.”: Study on flavonoid compounds from Prunus spinosa flowers.
- Cells (NCBI): “Role of Natural Antioxidant Products in Colorectal Cancer Disease: A Focus on a Natural Compound Derived from Trigno Ecotype”: Research on antioxidant effects of Trigno ecotype extract.
- Journal of Food Engineering (Elsevier): “Rheological behaviour of sloe (Prunus spinosa) fruit juices”: Analysis of sloe fruit juice’s rheological properties.
- Anales del Jardín (Dialnet): “Niveles de fructificación en Crataegus monogyna Jacq., Prunus mahaleb L. y Prunus spinosa L. (Rosaceae)”: Study on fruiting levels of various Rosaceae species.
- Phytochemistry (Elsevier): “A-type proanthocyanidins from Prunus spinosa”: Research on proanthocyanidins in Prunus spinosa flowers.
- Journal of Functional Foods (Elsevier): “Phenolic compounds of blackthorn (Prunus spinosa L.) and influence of in vitro digestion on their antioxidant capacity”: Study on phenolic compounds in blackthorn and their antioxidant capacity.
- European Atlas of Forest Tree Species (ResearchGate): “Prunus spinosa in Europe: distribution, habitat, usage and threats”: Overview of Prunus spinosa’s distribution, habitat, and threats in Europe.
- Acta poloniae pharmaceutica (EuropePMC): “Further flavonoids from the flowers of Prunus spinosa L.”: Research on additional flavonoids from Prunus spinosa flowers.
- Acta Alimentaria (AKJournals): “Determination of phenolic compounds, antioxidant capacity and organic acids contents of Prunus domestica L., Prunus cerasifera Ehrh. and Prunus spinosa L. fruits”: Study on antioxidant capacity and organic acids in various plum species.