One of the most dramatic plants I’ve seen in England on this trip has not been a garden plant – it’s the blackthorn, Prunus spinosa, with great clouds of white flowers billowing out of the hedgerows. It’s the classic spring shrub of roadsides and hedges and like so many natives the plants vary: so today some are well past their best, some are just about to open while many are in full flower. Some are also a clean pure white, others are a dirtier shade.
This relative of the plum and cherry is a traditional, and vital, component of farm hedges – its sharp spines and branching habit help make the hedge a good barrier and it also has other uses.
In the autumn it carries masses of blue fruits, known as sloes. The birds love them and last year I collected a few to take back to Pennsylvania so that I could have a little bit of English countryside in our American garden. My friend Carry Akroyd, a wonderful artist specialising in landscapes and wildlife, was noticeably frosty at the suggestion – she suspects that blackthorn will be invasive in the USA. But the USDA website, while noting its presence in nine US states, makes no mention of it being a problem - and also reveals that it already grows in Pennsylvania!
Graeme, another Northamptonshire friend, uses the sloes in another traditional way: for Christmas he gave me a bottle of his own homemade sloe gin. And what a wonderful tipple it is – it’s amazing that there’s still some left in March. It’s the colour of brandy and has a sharp, sweet, noticeably plumy and slightly almondy flavour.
Here’s Graeme’s recipe.
2 pints or 1litre of Gin
1/2 pint or 1/4 litre of sloes
8 oz or 200g of sugar (You can go to 12oz/300g if you prefer it really sweet)
Traditionally you prick the washed sloes individually with a pin, but sticking them in the freezer for a couple of hours seems to work as well.
Put all the ingredients in a large bottle or demijohn, and shake well. Leave in a darkish place for at least 3 months – though a year is best. Shake the bottle every few weeks.
When ready to drink, add a few drops of almond essence, shake again, then pour and enjoy!
Excellent! Thanks Graeme.