Joined: 30 May 2006 Posts: 2142 Location: West of Ireland
Posted: Sat Apr 21, 2007 12:20 am Post subject: Irish native Blackthorn tree / Prunus spinosa / Draigean
Irish native Blackthorn tree ... Prunus spinosa ... Draigean
Blackthorn is a tree that many of us here in Ireland believe is so Irish that it cannot be found beyond these shores. You may be surprised to know that this native can be found growing in many Nordic and Mediterranean countries, even occasionally cropping up as far away as Iran.
Where blackthorn is to be found, it may be known by its Latin name Prunus spinosa or one of its many common names, such as sloe, wild plum, wishing thorn or mother of the wood. A close relative of cherries and plums, blackthorn is a deciduous, small tree or large shrub, growing up to 4 metres high at a medium growth rate.
It is often to be found growing wild in hedgerows, on the edges of wooded areas or popping up on rough farmland. The types of conditions that the adaptable blackthorn grows under are varied; it appears to cope with everything except extremely wet and acidic soils.
Pretty flowers and sour fruit.
March through April is one of the best times to spot the wild blackthorn, at this time snow white, five petalled flowers emerge for all to see. The blooms appear before the leaves unfold; this is one of the easiest ways to tell the difference between blackthorn and hawthorn (whitethorn), its flowers before leaves for blackthorn and leaves before flowers for hawthorn.
The early blackthorn flowers are followed by the finely serrated, dull-green, oval leaves, which in turn are followed by blackish purple sloes in autumn. Sloes, the fruit of the blackthorn, are extremely sour especially if they have not received a frosting, so they tended to be used in the past for the production of jellies and as flavouring for sloe gin. The juice of unripe fruits leaves an almost indelible mark on any fabrics it touches, so beware of your best clothes whilst picking them.
Shamrocks and shillelaghs.
Leaves, flowers and fruit are easily supported on the trees smooth dark intersecting branches. This thicket like growth combined with blackthorns notoriously vicious woody thorns, and the ability to regrow quickly after cutting, makes for an ideal stock proof new hedging material or as a replacement plant for existing hedgerow gaps.
Grown as a hedge, blackthorn, with its sharp thorns will provide cover and nesting for many of our native birds as well providing a run for small mammals. A fair amount of insects are also known to flock to the tree, especially in spring when the subtle scents of its flowers attract the insects vital for pollination. Not as vital to the trees survival, but still linked by nature are the caterpillars of the brown and black hairstreak butterfly, who use the blackthorns leaves for food.
I can't finish a piece on the blackthorn without mentioning an item known as the shillelagh, a piece of wood work which has, at this stage become part of that Irish cliché "shamrocks and shillelaghs". The wood of the blackthorns is ideally suited to the manufacture of these clubs/walking sticks, due to its hardness to lightness ratio.
The autumn befor last I made some Sloe wine. I collected the sloes, crushed them up a bit, scalded them, and then put them in the bucket with the sugar and yeast. The wine was wonderful. I planted a few sloe seed to compensate for any loss in natural dispersal and propergation, but they havn't come up yet. However, some of the tougher Sloes did not break down in the yeast mix and I tossed these, allong with the rest of the must, onto the compost heap. This spring I have lots of little sloe seedlings growing out of the compost. Is there any president for seeds germinating better if they have been fermented? I would have thought that they would be distroyed by the yeast? Or maybe only the fruits that remained intact in the wine germinated? Anyway, I am rather hoping that the sloes from the resultent plants will turn out to be pre-fermented - but then I am a bit of an optimist!
Fruit seeds can be funny things. Fruits like sloe may contain an enzyme which is needed to enhance germination. It may be that the seeds you deliberately planted were clean of flesh. Now, I'm not saying this is the case with Sloes, but it is more than likely because the seeds as extremely hard and a breaking down is required for germination. On the other hand, fruits like Hawthorn, Holly etc, ie, most fruits with red pigmentation require cleaning and removal of fruit flesh to enhance germination. The red pigment contains an enzyme (?) which controls germination and makes it very sporadic. Plant a row of say 300 Holly seeds and in the spring you may get as much as a dozen germinate. However, leave the row alone and another dozen will germinate the following year and again the following year and so on until you reach maximum germination. On the other hand, plant the same amount of seeds with the flesh removed and you get maximum germination the first spring. Both these methods are part of the survival techniques in-built. If the Holly seeds all germinated at the same time, browsing/grazing animals may eat them and reduce the chances of survival, by sporadic germination, there becomes a higher chance that when the next batch germinate the following year the browsers/grazers have moved on. Sloes etc contain an extremely hard seed making it virtually impossible for rodents to eat, but not all. So it needs a process to break down the extremely hard seed case. Perhaps exposing the fruit to fermintation actually speeded up the enzyme in the fruit, rather than did anything magical, the magic was already in the Sloe!
Bill. _________________ Earth is the insane asylum of the Universe.
Thanks for the responce Bill, it is a facinating subject, and I will keep an eye out for any further germination with the non-fermented sloes next year. I'll also try planting a few fruit and all next autumn, and see if it makes a difference to the germination speed. Thanks again Dinah.
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