(adapted from Wayside MedicineBackyard Medicine For All, p40)

Blackthorn’s delicate white flowers are a reviving sight in spring, and were known as ‘lady of pearls’. It is a Prunus (Prunus spinosa), a rose family member, and its famed astringency served to ‘loosen’ intestinal pain (using the flowers) or to ‘bind’ the bowels when suffering diarrhoea (the fruit or sloes). Modern research adds antioxidant and anti-tumour potential to its ancient reputation.

Blackthorn is a wild ancestor of cultivated plums and has remained untamed, unlike its widely eaten relatives – apricots, cherries, peaches and almonds, as well as plums. Perhaps it is the vicious long thorns, which can carry algal or fungal contaminants that cause painful sinusitis, that prevented it entering cultivation.

The berries are of course sloes, and the reason we are advised to pick these after a frost is that freezing reduces the berries’ tannin levels and increases those of its sugars. The astringency remains but the palatability improves, especially in a sloe syrup. Sloes in any form are a useful go-to for tummy upsets, diarrhoea and other bodily ‘fluxes’.

At the end of October, go gather up sloes,
Have thou in readiness plenty of those,
And keep them in bedstraw or still on the bough
To stay both the flux of thyself and thy cow.
– anon., 19th century, quoted in Gabrielle Hatfield, Memory, Wisdom and Healing (1999)

This spiny shrub might well be called ‘the regulator of the stomach’ since, by a happy scheme of nature, its flowers loosen the bowels and its fruits bind them.
– Jean Palaiseul, Grandmother’s Secrets, translated from the French (1973)

Sloe-spiced brandy

Don’t be hung up on needing sloes to be combined with gin: any alcohol is a good preservative. A herbalist we know shared the tasty results of his own invention test with us.

He tinctured sloes, cardamom and fennel seeds in brandy. The spices softened and mellowed the astringency of the sloes, and there was a sweetish aftertaste, rather like Morello cherries.

This brandy mixture makes a good winter tonic, and helps with lack of appetite, weak digestion and sore throats.