I should point out that most members of this genus (Prunus) contain a toxin known as hydrogen cyanide. This is what gives many plants a bitter almond-like aroma. This can be dangerous to humans, and cause breathing difficulties, even death. However, I have, and know many people who have eaten sloes for many years with no ill effect. This doesn’t put me off, and I’m sure that anyone reading this will have eaten many fruits, nuts and pulses from supermarkets that also contain traces of hydrogen cyanide, even some jams will contain it. Hydrogen cyanide is mainly found in the leaves and the pits (stone of the fruits). Ultimately it’s your decision whether or not to use the blackthorn.
The Blackthorn Prunus spinosa is a common shrub in Great Britain (often called a sloe tree), found in most hedgerows, often near Hawthorn, which it superficially resembles. Blackthorn almost always bears its small white flowers before the leaves appear (see above). But, it’s the fierce thorns which make it famous. These thorns are exceptionally large and sharp with a brittle tip, which inevitably snaps off should they pierce your skin. This then turns septic and can be quite sore. I used to work with Blackthorn quite a lot, so have many scars to prove it; in fact about two years ago I almost lost my eye to one of these thorns whilst passing through a thicket. Even though its has cut me many times over the years I always have special memories of the blackthorn, collecting the sloes (berries) with my grandad on cold winter nights for use in cooking/drinks.
FLOWERS – the small pretty flowers are best eaten raw, or crystallised for cake decorations
LEAVES - the leaves should not be eaten, but once dried they can be used as tea
BERRIES – the berries are known as ‘sloes’ and these are very popular for making ‘sloe gin’, a potent alcoholic drink which if made with lots of sugar is more like a liqueur. I eat them straight from the bush after the first frosts of the year, but most will find them too sour to pallet.