by Ian Brand

I AM standing in the checkout queue at the supermarket with four cheap bottles of gin, something I do every October. I have already had several disapproving looks. So I am relieved when the friendly cashier asks, “Are you making damson or sloe gin?” Well of course!

Autumn is with us, bringing its harvest of fruits and berries. I am a rather timid forager but I do like making sloe or damson gin each year, which will be ready to be filtered and bottled by Christmas, making a timely gift for friends.

Damsons are said to have originated from Syria and named after the capital city, Damascus. The chance to make damson gin this year has probably gone, but the sloes are not quite ready to be picked and are probably best left until they have had their first frost in November.

Sloes are the fruit of our native Blackthorn (Prunus spinosa - see photo), a common hedging plant, frequently forming dense thickets, much like its half-sister the Hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna). Both are members of the rose family. Once the leaves, and respective sloes or haws have disappeared, they can be difficult to tell apart. Confusion reigns supreme in spring when both produce similar attractive creamy-coloured flowers.

However, there are some key differences: Blackthorn blossoms in March/April before its leaves start to appear. By contrast the Hawthorn flowers later in May, after or at the same time as the leaves emerge, hence its alternative name of May-flower, as in “Ne’er cast a clout till May be out”

Another ID tip in winter or spring is looking at the thorns and colour of the bark. The Blackthorn has lateral buds along its thorns, which arise from dark, black-barked twigs, hence its name. The Hawthorn only has buds arising from the thorn’s base as it emerges from the main stem; the bark is also a much lighter brown.

Despite the thorns causing fellow cyclists and me the occasional puncture, both are very welcome plants in our countryside. They provide nectar and pollen for emerging spring bees, as well as nesting sites for many birds and a food source during the winter months.

So I encourage you to partake in the tradition of making sloe gin this autumn; take a bag or container with you next time you are out walking. I am sure your friends and neighbours will approve come Christmas.