Blackthorn (Prunus spinosa) is a bushy, fast-growing, thorny hedgerow plant known for producing small fruit called sloes. Traditionally planted as hedges, it is embedded in the folk culture of the British Isles.
A plant with many uses
Blackthorn offers the perfect wood for walking sticks – strong, straight and good-looking. In the sixteenth century, the flowers were traditionally thought to cure stomach aches, while the fruit can be used to make sloe gin – an old-fashioned country drink echoing hedgerows in all four seasons, the fruit born from a haze of spring flowers, ripened in the summer sun, picked as the autumn starts to nip, then mixed with gin and carefully stored all through a cold, dark winter.
Sloes contain a lot of bitter tannins. It takes up to a kilogram of sloes to flavour a litre of gin.
Myths and legends
Legends about blackthorn lean into the dark side. A blackthorn wand is supposedly best for cursing, while a cross of blackthorn on the wall of your house just might protect you from witches. However, be careful when you cut a branch: in Irish mythology, there’s a breed of fierce, long-limbed fairies who guard the sacred wood, but leave at the full moon to worship the moon goddess.
Lisa Mullen (Faculty of English)
Lisa is a literary scholar, interested in the connections between words, text and landscapes: she believes that in order to understand and conserve the natural world, we need to imaginatively engage with it. In 2020 she began researching the cultural history and folklore surrounding blackthorn. Its sharp thorns and bitter fruit give it a fierce presence, and its history tells us something important about how to live respectfully alongside non-human species.