Sloes are the fruit of the blackthorn. A densely growing bush, packed with thorns, it’s often used in hedgerows to keep livestock in check. It’s a member of the prunus family, and like its more glamorous relatives, it’s dressed in white blossom throughout spring. This pretty display, combined with its overall hardiness, means that it features in many a suburban parkland.
It’s the season of mists and mellow fruitfulness, and there is no more misty fruit than the sloe. Each dark purple berry is touched with blue smoke, but don’t let their good looks fool you. Popping one in your mouth will draw your gums from your teeth, and your tongue will shrink away in fear – they’re tremendously astringent.
Sloes ripe for picking – note the dusting of chalky-purple bloom on the fruit.
“Then why bother with them at all?” I hear you cry. Well, with a little preparation, and a lot of patience, they’ll transform a plain old bottle of gin into a deeply delicious liqueur.
The sloes themselves are spherical and cluster tightly along the branches. If the berries you have found are oval and dropping from stems, they are probably damsons. Pick the sloes that have ripened in the sunshine, as these will be sweeter than those in the shade. Always pick from waist height upwards – this will leave plenty on the bushes for the wildlife and means you will collect the cleanest berries.
There’s a bit of folklore about only collecting sloes after the first frost, which was used as a signpost in time. If the frosts had started, the sloes had probably been around long enough to be ripe.
However, there’s no need to wait this long. Early autumn is not only a more pleasant time to be out and about, but you can time your sloe harvest to the last of blackberries, meaning that you can have some instant gratification foraging along the way.