A guide to foraging blackthorn flowers and capturing their almond-like scent in cooking.
Our photographic guide to foraging blackthorn flowers will quickly show you how to confidently identify this almost ever-present hedgerow species, also commonly known as the tree that gives us sloe fruits.
Certain trees evoke quite strong feelings and emotions in me, catching my full attention and almost demanding I come closer, to touch, smell and taste them. I make no apologies here for repeatedly mentioning that you always need to engage each and every one of your senses when foraging!
Identifying trees in the winter can be impossible unless you know the form of the tree really well, or are prepared to start looking really closely at the minute features.
When you are starting out, study all of the plant parts. Observe the buds, and their arrangement on the stem. Are they opposite or alternately spaced? Look at the young bark and the older bark, as well as the branches. Always take note of their lenticels, including size, shape, colour, and patterning.
While its true that many other shrubs and trees in Britain have thorns, and believe me I have bled from most of them…none are quite as vicious as blackthorn can be.
Warning! Although the plant is not poisonous to eat, the spines can potentially be really nasty if you accidentally puncture your skin with one. Take extra care when you are foraging blackthorn flowers, and wear strong gardening gloves for extra safety if you fancy.
Microbes living on blackthorn spines are thought to infect your blood, and if left unchecked and untreated, blackthorn punctures, esprcially where some plant material remains in the body, has in the past, led to sepsis and death.
However, these Vets and equine hospital specialists in Leicestershire, believe the pain and swelling comes from an array of alkaloid substances on the spines. Stay alert and safe!
All change in the hedgerow
In the warmer, protected regions of Britain, from late February and early March, this plant transforms itself in front of your eyes. From a hard, wiry-spiny, uninviting thing, comes a soft and fluffy-looking, sweet-smelling, late-winter wonder.
I absolutely adore the scent of the flowers! When wandering past a blackthorn tree on a sunny warm day in March, it makes me want to eat Bakewell tarts, and drink Amoretto and Brandy hot chocolate!
Whats in a name?
The generic part of the scientific name Prunus is the old Latin name for plums – Pruñus, which is the plural of Prune. This name is now given to a number of species producing stone fruits that are botanically classed as drupes. The name was taken from the old Greek word – Pruónē, which itself can apprantly be traced back to a borrowed word from langauges in the area of the middle East previously called Asia minor.
The speficic epithet spinosa, tells us that this plant will be covered in thorns or spines.
Its common name blackthorn also tells us about its chief defense mechanism, as well as referencing the dark colour of its branches and bark.
Blackthorn botanical description
Leaves: Obovate to laneolate-elliptic in shape and quite small (approximately 2 – 1o cm long). Typically they are rolled when emerging. Sometimes minutely hairy, the leaves have numerous small teeth (anywhere between 20 to 40) on the margins.
Petioles: This is quite short on the blackthorn. Usually between 2 – 10 mm long. Look out for the linear-shaped stipules at the base.
Twigs: Dark, occasionally downy, and purple-looking when they’re found with the pruinose coating on the twigs, as seen below. This thin layer of specialist protective cells is found on many unrelated plants. Over time, it will come away. The twigs often branch at 45° and 90° angles.
Buds: Oval-shaped, scaly, and brown. These soon turn into small pin-pricks of white and green as we pass imbolc in February.
Bark: On branches and trunks from about 4 or 5 years old, the bark becomes dark, rough and spotted with brown-orange lenticels.
Wavy ripples appear on older branches and the young trunk. This gives way on older trunks to the familiar dark brown bark, with numerous lentils displaying as bands of thin orange stripes.
Flowers: Flowers appear on long, thin, green stalks. Typically displaying five green sepals, five white petals, and a mass of yellow-tipped stamens. A single style and stigma are found in the centre of the flower. These easy-to-spot patterns of plants are described and explained in parts one and two of my article “How to identify plants in a day”.
Flowering season: I regularly see the first flowers in late February these days, but March was formerly the time of the first flush of flowers. Depending on location, you can still go out foraging blackthorn flowers well into April as well.
Fruits: Blackthorn produces the small, well-known, blue-purple stone fruits, commonly called sloes (10 – 15 mm). These astringent fruits are ready to go straight into gin from early October.
Habitats: The blackthorn is commonly found in hedgerows and woodland edges all over Britain, except for the very highest mountain peaks in Scotland.
Wherever it is found it can form dense thickets due to its habit of sending multiple suckers up from the roots.
Parts used: Only harvest the flowers when they are just opening, and while the anthers on top of the stamens are bright yellow, and loaded with pollen. The pollen soon goes and blows on the wind, and with it goes the almond flavour!
Harvesting: Simply pinch the whole flower off at the stalk, or select a few heavily laden twigs or young branches to judiciously prune off. Remember to check out all my other tips and tricks on harvesting wild plants.
Edible uses: What can you use this abundant flower full of almond flavour for? A lot! All maner of pastries, cakes and puddings can be enlivened with the benzaldehyde and hydrogen cyanide compounds responsible for the almond flavour.
Make blackthorn flower sugar syrup by infusing the flowers into warm water and melting sugar or honey into it. Use more sugar to make a cordial. The sugar syrup can be used in as many ways as you can think of.
Other notes: If you like me, love all the many different types of damsons, greengages, yellowgages and plums, then you can thank the blackthorn. They have all originated, or have been bred over thousands of years, from blackthorn.
Finally, and once more, please take extra care working around this plant…I want you to retun here just as you left!