Blackthorn

Synonyms: Sloe, Sloe Berry
Scientific Name: Prunus spinosa
Family: Rosacea

Habitat

Blackthorn was originally a native of central Europe. Thanks to its hardiness, it has become widespread and is now found from southern Sweden to the Urals, and in the moderate zones of Southwest Asia, North Africa and North America.

Constituents

Flavonoid glycosides, coumarin derivatives, tannins and bitter substances, acids, vitamin C, traces of amygdalin (cyanogenic glycoside)

Description

Reaching a height of up to 3 meters or 9 feet, this dense, many-branched thorny shrub flowers from March to April. The small, white flowers appear before the leaves on short stems, but cover the entire length of the branches so densely that the whole shrub is shrouded in white. In May, after the flowers have bloomed, the oval, tooth-edged leaves appear, followed in late summer by bluish-black, plum-like fruits which have a whitish bloom and astringent green flesh. The fruit is 1 cm in diameter and contain a stone that is only edible after the frost at which time the thorns are transformed into lateral branchlets.

Blackthorn likes sunny hills and dry, sparse deciduous woods with chalky, deep soil. Along with other members of the rose family, it often forms impenetrable thorny thickets. The light-loving blackthorn is extremely resistant to pests and regenerates quickly after cutting. It can colonize shallow soil quickly and spreads through seed dispersal by mammals and birds and by production of root suckers. Even on wind-exposed sites it defies the natural forces so it is not surprising that it was used as pioneer wood for stabilizing embankments and dry slopes, for landscaping slag heaps and wasteland, and for wind and snow screens. In spite of its fertility,

blackthorn has largely disappeared from the agricultural landscape as a result of modern farming methods which have made small fields impractical. Only recent ecological research has demonstrated the utility of hedgerows for agriculture and shown that their protection is worthwhile.

Uses

Blackthorn has astringent, mildly diuretic and laxative and soothing actions. An infusion made from the dried flowers is used for blood cleansing and as a gargle for mild inflammation of the mouth and throat. A compote or jam made from the berries combats poor appetite. In folk medicine, there are some fantastic sounding customs: in the Tyrol, a sloe is tied to the left side of the chest as a remedy against jaundice. In many regions, there is a custom of eating three flower stalks of the blackthorn bush three times in succession as protection against fever and gout.

Interesting Facts

Anyone who tries to get through a blackthorn hedge will realize where the Latin name "spinosa," meaning thorny, comes from. The alternative common name, sloe, is of Germanic origin (old high German "slêha") and is probably related to the old Bulgarian "sliva" and the Latin "lividus," meaning bluish. The name sloe would therefore refer to the blue fruits. The name blackthorn, on the other hand, refers to the black bark of older blackthorn trees.

The ancient Teutons already knew about the protective action of the blackthorn: together with hawthorn it was used for the first garden hedges which protected apple trees and herbs from game-damage. Incidentally, the Indogermanic word "gher" (= to catch) developed into the word "ghortos" which means literally "fenced in, enclosed." It was thus the fence that gave the garden its name, the woven fence or the protecting hedge enclosing a piece of land along the wall of a house.

In some places blackthorn is believed to ward off spells and have prophetic powers. On the night of St. Ottilie, it was customary to burn blackthorn branches as incense and on Walpurgis night, blackthorn was burnt together with juniper and rue to ward off evil spirits.

There are two German farmers' sayings connected with blackthorn blossom:

"Ist die Schlehe weiß wie Schnee, ist's Zeit, daß man die Gerste säe."
(When blackthorn blossoms snowy white, gor sowing barley the time is right.)

"Je zeitiger im April die Schlehe blüht, umso früher vor Jakobi die Ernte glüht."
(The earlier the blackthorn flowers appear, the earlier the farmers will harvest this year.)

Blackthorn provides a richly decked table for numerous animals: the lush flowers are welcomed by early flying insects, for example many wild bees (sand bees, cuckoo bees and others), bumble bees, beetles and flies. The leaves, which appear later, are particularly popular amongst caterpillars, for example those of the Scarce Swallowtail, the Brown and Black Hair Streak, the endangered Small Emperor Moth and especially those of the sociable Ermine Moths which build silky tents in the branches and are sometimes so numerous that whole blackthorn populations are stripped bare. The birds that nest in the blackthorn, such as the Red-backed Shrike and the Yellowhammer, find a veritable land of milk and honey there. For birds and mice which depend on berries in winter, the spiny shrub is an indispensable larder and guarantee of survival.

Blackthorn was important for humans in very early times. Archeologists have found fruit stones at the

sites of Neolithic pile villages. The Arabs, Greeks and Romans and people in the Middle Ages used the flowers and fruits as medicines and food. Asclepiades and Andromachus praised a thickened fruit juice from sloes as an effective remedy for dysentery. The tough wood of the undemanding blackthorn was also used in agriculture. The bark provided blackthorn ink, the fruits a red and the bark a brownish dye for wool and linen.

Today the fruits of the blackthorn are still used to brew warming drinks for harsh winter evenings: sloe wine and sloe gin make you feel cozy indoors while the snow rages outside. But syrups, jellies and jams are also a vitamin-rich delicacy.

The Plant at Dr. Hauschka Skin Care

Dr. Hauschka Blackthorn Toning Body Oil fortifies and warms the skin. With its pleasant fragrance, the harmonious composition of blackthorn blossom, birch leaves and St. John's wort firms and purifies. Its fortifying properties give the skin a fresh, well cared for appearance.

Gently prepared oil extracts from blackthorn blossom unfold their conditioning properties in Hydrating Hand Cream, Lemon Lemongrass Vitalizing Body Milk and Quince Hydrating Body Milk. Fully ripe blackthorn fruits harvested in the wild are carefully processed to essences which round off the composition of Lemon Lemongrass Vitalizing Body MilkQuince Hydrating Body Milk and  Sage Mint Deodorant.

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