Prunus spinosa

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Prunus spinosa
Closeup of blackthorn aka sloe aka prunus spinosa sweden 20050924.jpg
Scientific classification edit
Kingdom: Plantae
Clade: Angiosperms
Clade: Eudicots
Clade: Rosids
Order: Rosales
Family: Rosaceae
Genus: Prunus
Subgenus: Prunus subg. Prunus
Section: Prunus sect. Prunus
P. spinosa
Binomial name
Prunus spinosa
Prunus spinosa range.svg
Distribution map

Prunus spinosa, called blackthorn or sloe, is a species of flowering plant in the rose family Rosaceae. It is native to Europe, western Asia, and locally in northwest Africa,[3][4] it is also locally naturalised in New Zealand, Tasmania and eastern North America.[4]


Plant in flower in early spring
Blackthorn shrub in the Vogelsberg

Prunus spinosa is a large deciduous shrub or small tree growing to 5 metres (16 ft) tall, with blackish bark and dense, stiff, spiny branches; the leaves are oval, 2–4.5 centimetres (0.79–1.77 in) long and 1.2–2 centimetres (0.47–0.79 in) broad, with a serrated margin. The flowers are about 1.5 centimetres (12 in) in diameter, with five creamy-white petals; they are produced shortly before the leaves in early spring,[5] and are hermaphroditic and insect-pollinated. The fruit, called a "sloe", is a drupe 10–12 millimetres (3812 in) in diameter, black with a purple-blue waxy bloom, ripening in autumn and harvested – traditionally, at least in the UK – in October or November after the first frosts. Sloes are thin-fleshed, with a very strongly astringent flavour when fresh.[3]

Blackthorn usually grows as a bush but can grow to become a tree to a height of 6 m, its branches usually grow forming a tangle.[6]

Prunus spinosa is frequently confused with the related P. cerasifera (cherry plum), particularly in early spring when the latter starts flowering somewhat earlier than P. spinosa.[citation needed] They can be distinguished by flower colour, creamy white in P. spinosa, pure white in P. cerasifera. They can also be distinguished in winter by the more shrubby habit with stiffer, wider-angled branches of P. spinosa; in summer by the relatively narrower leaves of P. spinosa, more than twice as long as broad;[3][7] and in autumn by the colour of the fruit skin purplish black in P. spinosa and yellow or red in P. cerasifera.[citation needed]

Prunus spinosa has a tetraploid (2n=4x=32) set of chromosomes.[8]


Sloe flower, fruit, seed and leaves illustrated by Otto Wilhelm Thomé (1885)

The specific name spinosa is a Latin term indicating the pointed and thornlike spur shoots characteristic of this species; the common name "blackthorn" is due to the thorny nature of the shrub, and its very dark bark.

The word commonly used for the fruit, "sloe", comes from Old English slāh; the same word is noted in Middle Low German, historically spoken in Lower Saxony, Middle Dutch sleeuwe or, contracted form, slē, from which come Modern Low German words: slē, slī, and Modern Dutch slee, Old High German slēha, slēwa, from which come Modern German Schlehe and Danish slå.

The names related to 'sloe' come from the common Germanic root slaihwō. Confer West Slavic / Polish śliwa; plum of any species, including sloe śliwa tarnina—root present in other Slavic languages, e.g. Croatian/Serbian šljiva / шљива, and Russian слива.


The expression "sloe-eyed" for a person with dark eyes comes from the fruit, and is first attested in A. J. Wilson's 1867 novel Vashti.[9]


Pocket plum gall on blackthorn, caused by the fungus Taphrina pruni

The foliage is sometimes eaten by the larvae of Lepidoptera, including the small eggar moth, emperor moth, willow beauty, white-pinion spotted, common emerald, November moth, pale November moth, mottled pug, green pug, brimstone moth, feathered thorn, brown-tail, yellow-tail, short-cloaked moth, lesser yellow underwing, lesser broad-bordered yellow underwing, double square-spot, black and brown hairstreaks, hawthorn moth (Scythropia crataegella) and the case-bearer moth Coleophora anatipennella. Dead blackthorn wood provides food for the caterpillars of the concealer moth Esperia oliviella.

The pocket plum gall of the fruit caused by the fungus Taphrina pruni produces an elongated and flattened gall, devoid of a stone.


Global plum and sloe output in 2005
Grafted blackthorn tree; called a husband and wife tree

The shrub, with its savage thorns, is traditionally used in Britain and other parts of northern Europe to make a cattle-proof hedge.[10]

The fruit is similar to a small damson or plum, suitable for preserves, but rather tart and astringent for eating, unless it is picked after the first few days of autumn frost; this effect can be reproduced by freezing harvested sloes.[citation needed]

The juice is used in the manufacture of fake port wine, and used as an adulterant to impart roughness to genuine port.[11][12] In rural Britain a liqueur, sloe gin, is made by infusing gin with sloes and sugar. Vodka can also be infused with sloes.[13]

In Navarre, Spain, a popular liqueur called pacharán is made with sloes. In France a similar liqueur called épine or épinette or troussepinette is made from the young shoots in spring. In Italy, the infusion of spirit with the fruits and sugar produces a liqueur called bargnolino (or sometimes prunella)—as well as in France where it is called prunelle (also the common name of the shrub) or veine d'épine noire. Wine made from fermented sloes is made in Britain, and in Germany and other central European countries.

Sloes can also be made into jam, chutney,[13] and used in fruit pies. Sloes preserved in vinegar are similar in taste to Japanese umeboshi; the juice of the fruits dyes linen a reddish colour that washes out to a durable pale blue.[10]

Blackthorn makes an excellent fire wood that burns slowly with a good heat and little smoke;[14] the wood takes a fine polish and is used for tool handles and canes.[15] Straight blackthorn stems have traditionally been made into walking sticks or clubs (known in Ireland as a shillelagh).[16] In the British Army, blackthorn sticks are carried by commissioned officers of the Royal Irish Regiment; this is a tradition also in Irish regiments in some Commonwealth countries.

The leaves resemble tea leaves, and were used as an adulterant of tea.[12][15]

Shlomo Yitzhaki, a Talmudist and Tanakh commentator of the High Middle Ages, writes that the sap (or gum) of P. spinosa (which he refers to as the prunellier) was used as an ingredient in the making of some inks used for manuscripts.[17]

The fruit stones have been found in Swiss lake dwellings.[12] Evidence of the early use of sloes by man is found in the famous case of a 5,300-year-old human mummy discovered in 1991 in the Ötztal Alps along the Austrian-Italian border (nick-named Ötzi): among the stomach contents were sloes.[18]

A "sloe-thorn worm" used as fishing bait is mentioned in the 15th-century work, The Treatyse of Fishing with an Angle, by Juliana Berners.[19]

The flowering of the blackthorn may have been associated with the ancient Celtic celebration of Imbolc.[20]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species". IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Retrieved 2018-10-26.
  2. ^ "The Plant List: A Working List of All Plant Species". Retrieved 27 January 2014.
  3. ^ a b c Rushforth 1999[page needed]
  4. ^ a b Den Virtuella Floran: Prunus spinosa map
  5. ^ Clapham, A.C., Tutin, T.G. and Warburg, E.F. 1968. Excursion Flora of the British Isles. Cambridge University PressISBN 0-521-04656-4
  6. ^ Kilbracken, J. 1995. Larousse Easy way guide Trees. LarousseISBN 0-7523-0027X
  7. ^ Vedel 1960[page needed]
  8. ^ Weinberger 1975, pp. 336–347.
  9. ^ "sloe-eyed". Oxford English Dictionary (3rd ed.). Oxford University Press. September 2005. (Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
  10. ^ a b Coats 1992, Prunus.
  11. ^ Wikisource-logo.svg Gilman, D. C.; Peck, H. T.; Colby, F. M., eds. (1905). "Sloe" . New International Encyclopedia (1st ed.). New York: Dodd, Mead.
  12. ^ a b c Wikisource-logo.svg One or more of the preceding sentences incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainRines, George Edwin, ed. (1920). "Sloe" . Encyclopedia Americana.
  13. ^ a b Kerri. "Sloe Gin and Sloe Chutney". Dinner Diary. Retrieved 31 August 2017.
  14. ^ "The Burning Properties of Wood" (PDF). The Scout Association. 1999. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2012-12-23.
  15. ^ a b Wikisource-logo.svg One or more of the preceding sentences incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainBeach, Chandler B., ed. (1914). "Sloe" . The New Student's Reference Work . Chicago: F. E. Compton and Co.
  16. ^ Chouinard B.A., Maxime. "The stick is king: The Shillelagh Bata or the rediscovery of a living Irish martial tradition" (PDF). Retrieved 5 July 2011.
  17. ^ Talmud Bavli, Tractate Shabbat 23a
  18. ^ Tia Ghose (8 November 2012). "Mummy Melodrama: Top 9 Secrets About Otzi the Iceman". LiveScience. Retrieved 10 November 2012. (to locate, click ahead to part 4)
  19. ^ The Treatyse of Fishing with an Angle (attributed to Dame Juliana Berners in the 15th century)
  20. ^ Aveni 2004, p. 38.


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