Thanks to its deeply sour ways, this little wild plum has been happily providing good doses of tarty shocks for centuries. Although it’s not known for culinary bravado, teamed up with booze and sugar, the transformation is nothing short of miraculous. It is after all the star ingredient of Britain’s popular cold weather tipple – the gloriously delicious Sloe Gin (or Sloe Vodka if you are so inclined).
Sloes are the fruit of the blackthorn tree, a common hedging plant which grows naturally in woodlands, parks, wasteland and any other wild spot it sees fit. Its tiny white blossoms appear before the leaves in spring and come autumn, clusters of the blue-black fruit hug the fiercely spiky branches in abundance.
According to old country wisdom, sloes should not be picked before the first frosts (this softens and splits the rock hard skin), that was of course before the invention of the nifty freezer. Just gather, pop into an airtight container and freeze them until use.
Seasonal period: Mid to late autumn
Where to find them: Hedgerows, woodlands, parks, motorway verges, wasteland, canals and rivers
How to recognise: A densely branched tree which can grow to a height of 7m tall. It has smooth dark brown bark, and the twigs form straight side shoots, which develop into thorns. The leaves are slightly wrinkled, oval, up to 4cm long with a tapered base and a toothed margin. The flowers are white and tiny, and appear before the leaves in spring, often singularly or in pairs. The round fruit appears in autumn and measures up to 1cm across. They are blue-black and have a green flesh.
Harvesting: Simply pluck the sloes off the branch. Watch out for the incredibly sharp thorns. They will cause you pain.
What to eat: The spring flowers are edible. They taste a bit like almonds and can be added to salads or made into a syrup. The young leaves can be brewed into a tea. As mentioned above, the fruit is terribly tart until soaked in gin or vodka.
Cleaning and storing: There is no need to wash the sloes, but if you do then make sure you dry them before you use them or store them in fridge. If you pick them before the first frosts, it is best to pop them in the freezer for a few days so their skins burst and are easier to prick.
Cooking: Once you’ve used the fruit for your sloe gin or vodka, don’t throw them away. They can be used to make delicious chocolate liqueurs – a fantastic Christmas gift for friends and family.
Medicinal uses: The flowers and leaves can be turned into a tea and used to treat throat ailments such as laryngitis and tonsillitis. The fruit is rich in vitamin C and can be used for stomach disorders and to purify the blood. They can also be made into a paste to whiten teeth, and the juice heals mouth irritations, ulcers and gum problems.
Know hazards: The thorns!
Responsible foraging: Unless you are 100% sure of what it is and 100% sure that it is edible, DON’T EAT IT! Harvest only what you need from healthy tree. If you want to snip off the branches instead of individually picking the sloes, make sure you do so at the first joint so you avoid damaging the populations. Consider pesticides, herbicides, pollutions and dog pee. Think about all that could, might and will have drifted onto your plants and pick wisely. Always read the foraging rules in your local parks and green spaces, and if you’re foraging on farms or private properties, be sure to get permission from the landowner before you start picking.