Blackthorn, Sloe

Common name:
Prunus spinosa
Rosaceae – The Rose Family
Flowering period:
Hedgerows, roadside verges, rocky limestone, cliffs
Conservation Status:
Common throughout the Burren

Beautiful bonsai blackthorn in bloom in the Burren, Co Clare, announcing the arrival of Spring after a long winter

Short description:

A small deciduous thorny tree best known for its beautiful white clusters of flowers that adorn the Burren landscape in early Spring.  I love the bonsai forms of this tree that straggle prostrate over limestone pavement,  a special feature of the Burren landscape.

Beautiful snowy -white five petaled flowers with red tipped anthers and yellow stamens. Leaves finely toothed, oval, green, on short stalks, nearly hairless,  often disfigured by galls.

Noteworthy characteristics:

Clusters of beautiful flowers appear in early Spring before the leaves emerge, making a striking contrast to the dark brown sharply thorned twigs.   This shrub is easily recognised in Autumn by the its dark blue berries or sloes which adorn its branches, often in great quantities for such small shrubs.

Blackthorn spreads by suckers and can sometimes form dense impenetrable thickets, providing good habitat for nesting birds.

Uses and other points of interest:

Blackthorn blossoms were regarded as a symbol of female beauty by our ancestral Gaelic poets

Blackthorn had many magical associations in ancient Ireland. It was considered unlucky to bring the blossoms indoors, on the other hand blackthorn was seen as a protective plant against the forces of darkness

Blackthorn has been used throughout Ireland for centuries as hedging

Walking sticks were traditionally made in Ireland from blackthorn as its wood is suitably tough and strong. They continue to be made today.  The famous Irish cudgels and shillelaghs were also made form blackthorn wood in past Ireland.  Sometimes these cudgels were hallowed out and filled with lead  for extra striking effect!

Early herbalists used blackthorn sloes in the treatment of  diarrhoea as they are highly astringent. The bark was used in Co  Tipperary as a decoction as a  treatment  of worms in children

Blackthorn has been used in the past to obtain a blue dye for linen.

Dried blackthorn leaves were smoked as a tabaco substitute in Ireland and was known as Irish tea

Sloes are gathered in late Autumn and mixed with sugar and gin to make a delicious drink, perfectly timed to be ready for use at Christmas!

Personal note:

The sight of blackthorn flowers bursting into bloom on the bare Burren landscape in early Spring gladdens my heart, particularly after a long winter.  I love to see these blossoms and as they symbolise hope and renewed energy.

According to my father when he was growing up in  North Clare, blackthorn in full bloom was known as ‘April Snow’, what a gorgeous description.

We love to make sloe gin every year, last year I added some meadowsweet flowers  to the mix. The result was very good indeed with the infusion of meadowsweet adding an extra layer of flavour to an already delicious drink.


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