The Blackthorn (Prunus spinosa) or Draighean/Draighneán donn in Irish has produced a bounty of purple-black fruit in the hedgerows now (1). These fruits which are covered in a blue waxy substance are called sloes or airní in Irish. They are classified as drupes. These are fleshy fruits with thin skins and hard stones in their centres which contain the seed. Other drupes are cherries, plums and peaches.
These sloes are edible but not many can be eaten at any one time because they have a sour taste. They also contain a toxin called hydrogen cyanide so eating too many is not advised because of this. After frost, the taste is slightly sweeter, however.
The sloes can be used to make sloe gin, sloe rum, jams and jellies.
These sloes begin as white blossoms in March and April (2). A leafless hedgerow filled with them is a remarkable and cheerful sight at this time of the year and of course they provide nectar and pollen for insects when generally flowers are scarce in the wild.
The blackthorn bush itself has black stems and is densely covered with sharp thorns. Straight stems are used to make tough blackthorn sticks called shillelaghs. (Sail éille-a heavy stick or cudgel). These were used in the past by faction fighters at fairs to fight their enemies. Many are now sold in tourist shops.
Some places in Ireland named after the blackthorn include Drinagh in Wexford and Drinagh in Cork, (Place of blackthorns), Kildreenagh in Carlow (Church of blackthorns), Meenadreen in Donegal (Mountain pasture of the blackthorn) and Monadren in Tipperary (The bog of the blackthorns). Killarney (Church of sloes) is named after the Irish word for sloe-airne.