The blackthorn tree is native to Europe and the British Isles, Scandinavia and parts of western Asia and extends its range into Iran and Siberia. It is a pioneer tree and can spread into fields and help woodlands regenerate. It has a special place in Celtic mythology and is, according to Irish legends, the home of the “little people” or faeries, the Lunantishees who live in its branches and protect it especially between November 11th and May 11th from being cut for its branches.
  There are many superstitions surrounding the Blackthorn tree, with some saying that it formed Christ’s crown of thorns, as if pricked by these, the wound is likely to become septic. When it grows together with the hawthorn, or May tree, the place where they grow is magical. It was believed that if someone pointed a blackthorn staff at a pregnant woman or animal they would miscarry. In Wales we believe that bringing a branch of blackthorn into the house is unlucky and foretells the death not just of a household member, but of a relative. (It is called Draenon ddu in Welsh and in Scots Gaelic it is Draighiann, while in Irish Gaelic it is Draighean.) However, it brings good fortune if entwined with mistletoe in December. Crowns and garlands were made from it and thrown into the May Day fires at Beltane, and the ashes were scattered over the fields to ensure that crops were good.
   It was thought to be one of the trees which crossed the barriers between this world and the spirit world, and if you meditate under it you can communicate with spirits, but you should have an amulet of it so that you can return.
  The Irish use it to make shillelaghs, walking sticks or cudgels and it is valued because of its knotty wood. There are many other legends associated with this tree, but too numerous to mention here.
   The fruit of this tree are called sloes, and these are picked after the first autumn frosts in October to make sloe gin, jellies and jams. They can be made into conserves and are good with apples. They can also be pickled and preserved, like olives. These berries contain stones, which should not be eaten as they contain amygdalin and prunasin which, when broken down in water form hydrocyanic acid (prussic and cyanide). If taken in small doses however, they can stimulate the digestive system, promote a feeling of well-being and the respiratory system.
  Prunus spinosa is a member of the Rosaceae or rose family of plants and is a very close relative of the plum, as well as the apricot, damson, greengage and almond. The fruit, a sloe, is rich in vitamin C and anthocyanins, like the bilberry (whinberry or wimberry), blueberry, blackcurrant, blackberry and black grapes. It can help prevent prostate enlargement, as can the other black fruits, and it has potent antioxidant properties, so can help fight the free-radicals that cause damage to healthy cells and are cancer-causing. The skin is astringent and can be used on irritated skin and skin problems.
  Sloes were eaten by our Neolithic ancestors as archaeologists have found pits that used to be lined with straw to put sloes in for a few months, so that they would ripen and become sweeter.
  The white flowers appear before the leaves and it is their stark contrast with the black bark of the tree that led people to believe that the tree was a symbol of both life and death. These flowers are edible and are the most used part of the tree in herbal medicine.
Sloe syrup is used to relieve the pain of rheumatism, and to help when people have flu. The fruit is used for dysentery and diarrhoea, sometimes in combination with the dried flowers, as the fruit has astringent properties. The bark of the tree contains tannin and so can also be useful in a decoction for these problems. The berries have been used for stomach disorders and to purify the blood, and the dried juice has been made into gum acacia. The sloes can also be made into a paste to whiten teeth and the juice is used for mouth irritations and ulcers as well as gum problems, In the Middle Ages it was used to make teeth firm in the gums.
  You can dry the flowers and leaves and make a tisane with them for stomach cramps, while a tisane of the flowers is made to break up stones in the kidneys and gall bladder. It is purgative and can stimulate a jaded appetite. This is also used as a blood purifier and for catarrh. A decoction of the bark is used in fevers as it is said to promote sweating. The skin of the sloe has antibacterial properties so can be applied to the skin if there is an infection.
  A friend of mine went up a tree to harvest sloes one autumn and disturbed a squirrel which clearly didn’t want to share the harvest. It sat close to my feet and chattered angrily up at the person in the tree, not noticing, or caring about my presence. We used the fruit to make sloe gin, and then sloe gin-soaked chocolates for Christmas.
  To make sloe gin you have to have a bottle of gin, an empty bottle and a couple of pounds of sloes. Pour half the gin into the empty bottle and after washing the fruit, pile it into the bottles, cover tightly and leave for 6-8 weeks, turning it twice a day at first, then once a day. Leave the bottles in a cool dark place. Strain, pour the gin into one bottle and use the sloes in the recipe below.

Sloes that have been macerated in gin
  (as described above)

Melt the chocolate in a pan and throw in the sloes.
Remove from the heat and stir well to mix.
Take a dessert spoon and put a circle of chocolate and sloes on greased paper on a tray.
Take care to keep the chocolate separate.
Refrigerate until the chocolate is set, store in a tin and eat them whenever you fell like it.
These have Taste and are a Treat.


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  2. You did not mention sugar in your sloe gin recipe. I make large batches, and nearly always add about half an inch or so of sugar to the bottom after the slopes have been slitted and added. Sometimes I add vanilla essence too. It has be one a tradition for me to pick slows and other berries to make into winter liqueurs.

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