Blackthorn is a deciduous shrub that has long been popular in hedgerows because of its thorns (4). The beautiful white blossom tends to appear early in the year before the leaves, often in a very cold period following a false spring. These cold snaps are widely known as ‘blackthorn winters’ (4). Blackthorn is related to the plums. The bitter fruits it produces are known as sloes, and are used to make sloe gin (4). They are bluish-black in colour and often have a whitish bloom. The flesh is green and there is a single stone inside (2).
This deciduous shrub flowers from late February to early March to April (5).The flowers are pollinated by a range of insects (2).
In addition to flavouring gin, sloes are used in jellies, conserves and syrups and were made to make sloe wine, an alternative to port (5)(4). They have also been put to various uses in folk-medicine (6). The flowers are edible and the leaves have been dried and used as a substitute for tea (6). Furthermore, dyes have been obtained form the fruits, leaves and bark (5). The wood of blackthorn is extremely hard and is highly valued for making walking sticks as it shows interesting patterns and knot-holes (4).
Widespread in Britain southwards of Sutherland and Caithness and reaching altitudes of up to 415m in Yorkshire (2). Elsewhere, this shrub is found in Europe with the exceptions of the far north and north-east, and extends as far east as Iran. It also occurs in south-western Siberia (2).
Typical habitats include hedgerows, woodlands, scrub, cliff slopes and screes. On shingle beaches a prostrate form of blackthorn may occur (3). This shrub can tolerate a wide range of soil types, but cannot survive in deep shade (2).
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