The parent tree which produces the Sloe is the Blackthorn, our
hardy, thorny hedgerow shrub (Prunus  spinosa), Greek
Prounee, common everywhere, and starting into blossom of a
pinky white about the middle of March before a leaf appears, each
branchlet ending in a long thorn projecting beyond the flowers at
right angles to the stem. From the conspicuous blackness of its rind
at the time of flowering, the tree is na
ed Blackthorn, and the spell
of harsh unkindly cold weather which prevails about then goes by
the name of blackthorn winter.
The term Sloe, or Sla, means not the fruit but the hard trunk, being
connected with a verb signifying to slay, or strike, probably because
the wood of this tree was used as a flail, and nowadays makes a
In the Autumn every branch becomes clustered with the oval
blue-black fruit presently covered with a fine purple bloom; and
until mellowed by the early frosts, this fruit is very harsh and
The leaves, when they unfold late in the spring, are small and
narrow. If dried, they make a very fair substitute for tea, and when
high duties were placed on imported tea, it was usual to find the sloe
trees stripped of their marketable foliage.
Furthermore, the dark ruby juice of Sloes enters largely into the
manufacture of British port wine, to which it communicates a
beautiful deep red colour, and a pleasant sub-acid roughness. Letters
marked upon linen fabric with this juice, when used fresh, will not
If obtained by expression from the unripe fruit, it is very useful as
an astringent medicine, and is a popular remedy for stopping a flow
of blood from the nose. It may be gently boiled to a thick
consistence, and will then keep throughout the year without losing
its virtues. Winter-picks is a provincial name for the Sloe fruit,
 and winter-pick wine takes the place of port in the rustic
cellar. The French call them Prunelles.
Sloe-blossoms make a safe, harmless, laxative medicine. To use
these, Boil them up, and drink a cup of the tea daily for three or
four days; it will act gently, painlessly, but thoroughly. The syrup
is especially useful for children.
Country people bury the Sloes in jars to preserve them for winter
use; and the bush which bears this fruit is sometimes called,
Sloes may be gathered when ripe on a dry day, picked clean, and put
into jars or bottles, without any boiling or other process, and then
covered with loaf sugar; a tablespoonful of brandy should presently
be added, and the jar sealed. By Christmas, the syrup formed from
the juice, the sugar, and the spirit, will have covered and saturated
the fruit, and then a couple of tablespoonfuls will not only make an
agreeable dessert liqueur, but will act as an astringent cordial of a
very pleasant sort.
In Somersetshire the Sloe is named Snag (as corrupted from Slag,
i.e., Sloe). The juice is viscid, and when thickened to dryness, is the
German Gum Acacia.
Those provers who have taken experimentally a tincture made from
the wood and bark and leaves of the Blackthorn, all had to complain
of sharp pains in the right eyeball and accordingly the diluted
tincture is found, when administered in small quantities, to give
signal relief for ciliary neuralgia, arising from a functional disorder
of the structures within the eyeball. Dr. Hughes says: It not only
relieves such pains, but also checks the inflammation, and clears the
vision. The medicinal tincture is made (H.) with proof spirit of
wine from the flower buds collected in early spring  before
they expand. The Sloe has been employed as a styptic ever since the
time of Dioscorides. From the effects, says Withering, which I
have repeatedly observed to follow a wound from the thorns, I find
reason for believing that there is something poisonous in their
nature, particularly in the autumn.
Next to the Sloe in order of development comes the Bullace
(Prunus insititia), a shrub with fewer thorns, and bearing its
flowers after the leaves have begun to unfold.
The fruit is five times as big as the Sloe, but likewise of a delicate
bluish colour. It is named from the Latin plural bullas, meaning the
round bosses which the Romans put on their bridles. Lydgate (1440)
used the phrase, As bright as Bullaces, in one of his poems. In
Lincolnshire the blossom is known as Bully bloom, and the fruit
are Bullies. After harvest the women and children go out
gathering them for Bullace-wine. Boys in France call Slot's
Sibarelles, because it is impossible to whistle immediately after
eating them. Some writers say the signification of Sloe is that
which sets the teeth on edge.
Finally comes the true Wild Plum (Prunus domestica), which is
far less common than the two preceding sorts. Its flowers are large,
and in small clusters, whilst the leaves unfold with the blossom. The
fruit is a small brownish plum, intensely sharp and acrid to the taste,
and the tree is thorny. Only in this latter respect does it differ from
an inferior kind of garden plum of which the cultivation has been
The cultivated Plum has been developed from the Wild Plum, and
has been made to exhibit some fifty varieties of form and character.
The fruit of Damascus was formerly much valued, being now
known as Damascenes, (damsons), Damasin, or Damask prune.
 All the Wild Plums develop thorns; but the cultivated kinds
have entirely cast them off. The Plum, as a fruit, was known to the
Romans in Cato's time, but not the tree.
Little Jack Horner, says the familiar nursery rhyme, sat in a
corner, eating a Christmas pie; he put in his thumb, and he pulled
out a plum, and said 'What a good boy am I.'
Inquit, et unum extraheus prunum,
Horner, quam fueris nobile pueris
When ripe, cultivated Plums are cooling and slightly laxative,
especially the French fruit, which is dried and bottled for dessert.
They are useful for costive habits, and may be made into an
electuary; but, when unripe, Plums provoke choleraic diarrhoea. The
garden fruit contains less sugar than cherries, but a large amount of
gelatinising pectose. Dr. Johnson was specially fond of veal pie with
plums and sugar. He taunted Boswell about the need of gardeners to
produce in Scotland what grows wild in England. Pray, Sir, said
he, are you ever able to bring the Sloe to perfection there? On
Change a hundred thousand pounds are whimsically known as a
plum, and a million of money is a marigold. Lately a Chicago
physician whilst officiating at a Reformatory found that the boys
behaved themselves much better when taking prunes in their diet
than at any other time. These act, he supposes, on certain organs
which are the seats, and centres of the passions.
From France comes the Greengage, named in that country (out of
compliment to the Queen of Francis the First) La Reine Claude. It
was brought to England from  the Monastery of La Grande
Chartreuse, about the middle of the eighteenth century, by the Rev.
John Gage, brother to the owner of Hengrave Hall, near Coldham,
Suffolk; and taking his name this fruit soon became diffused
French Prunes are conveyed to England in their dried state from
Marseilles. With their pulp, figs, tamarinds, and senna, the officinal
lenitive electuary is made; and apothecaries prepare a medicinal
tincture from the fresh flower-buds of the Blackthorn.
Culpeper says: All Plumbs are under Venus, and are like women--
some better, some worse.
In Sussex and some other counties, a superstitious fear attaches
itself to the Blackthorn in bloom, because of the apparent union of
life and death when the tree is clothed in early Spring with white
flowers, but is destitute of leaves; so that to carry, or wear a piece
of Blackthorn in blossom, is thought to signify bringing a death token.