Sloes grow on the blackthorn, a really spiky small tree with dark bark, hence the name! It is a type of prunus, the trees which bear almonds, apricots, cherries, nectarines, peaches and plums. It grows wild, especially along hedgerows, and it is one of the first trees to have blossom in the spring. The flowers are white and really show up against the black branches and twigs as they come before the leaves. If you’re walking along and you see a small tree bare of leaves but covered in white blossom against black bark, then that will be a sloe tree.
Blackthorn is easily understood; sloe is an old English word and is related to other similar sounding words in other European languages. I think the description ‘sloe-eyed’ is lovely, so evocative, and it was created by Augusta Jane Wilson, an American writer in her novel ‘Vashti’.
The blackthorn is a most useful tree, although apart from its fruit, I guess underused today. The lovely wood can be made into walking sticks, and I remember my dad telling me about old gentlemen he knew when he was a child who had blackthorn sticks; it’s also the wood traditionally used to make shillelaghs. The wood makes good firewood too, but it is the fruit that most people use today. It is most often made into sloe gin, but the tart little sloes can be made into jam and fruit pies, but also used to dye linen.