Leicestershire & Rutland Ramblers

Let's Get Sloe

LET’S GET SLOE or a tale of spikes and prickles and other nasty things.

For those of us who get so called pleasure from walking rough country and fighting our way through undergrowth, nature has an armoury of weapons waiting to do us damage. Strangely though, nearly all have good uses to which they can be put.

Hedges of hawthorn, blackthorn etc and fields of brambles are just the start.

The blackthorn (or sloe) is a member of the prunus family and, with the closely related cherry plum, is probably the ancestor of all plums and damsons etc. as they hybridise freely. The blackthorn is a small, crooked deciduous tree or shrub with angular, knobbly, black/brown branches, with long, extremely sharp thorns which we are introduced to regularly. The pricks and scratches from these can easily become septic and difficult to heal. The thorns are sharp enough to penetrate bike and car tyres so care is needed near newly trimmed hedges of the stuff.

From early October the fruit or sloes often cover the branches like bunches of grapes. They soften a little after frosts, but never lose their acidic, mouth-puckering character enough to become palatable. The name sloe is likely to derive from the old word `slag', meaning sour; very descriptive of the fruit!

This plant does however have its uses; first as an effective barrier, but also in many other ways. The unripe fruits will provide an almost indelible marking ink and the ripe berries give a good deep purple dye.

The leaves and blossom make a tea that is mildly laxative and purging while stimulating the appetite and it also soothes coughs and sore throats. The bark is an astringent and has been used for diarrhoea and piles as have the green unripe fruits, which are also reputed to lower blood pressure.

It is the ripe berries we use most. Like its cousin the cherry plum the fruit are rarely sweet enough to eat raw but the plums and the berries will make a fine wine, being particularly good with elderberries. They are also used as bitters to make liqueurs; like sloe gin and sloe port made by pricking the sloes and soaking them in gin or brandy with sugar for at least three months and then decanting off the ruby liquid. The remaining alcohol-soaked fruits can be chopped up and introduced into numerous deserts; great with ice cream or rice pudding. They can also be covered with melted dark chocolate to create superb liqueur chocolates. Both the plums and berries can be cooked into jams and jellies often with crab apples and other hedgerow fruits.

Sloes are high in vitamin C and a good tonic for stomach and bladder, as well as soothing chest, mouth and throat when troublesome.

Hawthorn, or to give it any of its local names (whitethorn, quickthorn, fairy thorn, quickset, bread and cheese and tramps supper etc), has flowers and berries which are the source of numerous natural remedies and an ingredient of many jellies, preserves and liqueurs. The young leaves can be eaten in salads as can dandelion leaves.

Dandelions, in some parts of the country, can lay down carpets of slippy green leaves just waiting to upend the off-balance walker. The flowers are held up by leafless, hollow stems that contain a milky latex adding to the ice-like qualities of the surface. The name dandelion comes from `dent-de-lion' or 'dens leonis' meaning lion's teeth although quite why it is given these names is unclear. It is presumed to possibly refer to the shape of the leaves or the long tapering tap root. Its other old names are 'piss-a-bed' or 'piss-en-lit' referring to its qualities as a diuretic. Other names are priest's crown or monk's head from its appearance once the seeds have flown and clock flower and blowball from its seed head. Its official name taraxacum offzcinale refers to its ability to remedy disorders and its use in medicine. It was used by ancient Greeks, Egyptians, Arabs and Celts and is a very good tonic, and is now proven to stimulate the bodies' systems, detoxifying the blood and lymphatic system by increasing efficiency of the kidneys and bowels; a diuretic and mild laxative. The latex has long been used to shrink warts, verrucae and age spots while the flowers in honey soothed sore throats.

The plant is good at stimulating the gallbladder, liver and digestive systems, preventing gallstones, jaundice, kidney and urinary infections and the increase in body fluid retention. It reduces high blood-pressure, eases heart problems, PMT and a swollen ankle etc., and eliminates toxins that can cause skin problems such as, eczema, acne, as well as gout and cellulite. It is even said to help regulate blood sugar and cholesterol levels. You are lucky indeed if it cannot do anything to help you.

The plant contains most of the minerals and vitamins needed to keep us well. The young leaves can be eaten as a spring tonic, cooked like spinach or in sandwiches, soups, stews and stir-fries. Dried leaves can make a beneficial herbal tea and the roots dried, roasted and ground can make a herbal ‘coffee'. The whole plant has been used to make country beers, often with nettles, dock and burdock.

Nettles are another plant that is Jekyll and Hyde like. We are all too familiar with the irritating sting and the warm legs that come from running carelessly through them. The sting is however very helpful in fighting the effects of arthritis and I have heard similar claims for bee stings.

I have seen several adverts for nettle products not least a small corner shop in Cumbria selling delightful chilled nettle beer. Nettles were used by Roman soldiers to ease their joints after long marches and as a pick me up for exhaustion. They are said to be packed with iron and other trace elements, health-giving minerals and many different vitamins. They are a blood cleanser, detoxifier, tonic, diuretic and astringent. They are also claimed to stimulate the immune system and be good for eczema and other skin conditions, asthma, hay-fever and other allergies, for gout, cystitis, prostrate and water retention problems, anaemia, bloody noses and high blood pressure. Applied with caution it helps haemorrhoids and varicose veins and as a shampoo it encourages hair growth.

It can be added to beer or wine during manufacture, mashed, stewed, boiled, microwaved or steamed and produce a herbal tea or form part of many dishes although having little flavour in its own right. If you pick fresh young leaves in spring, liquidise them and freeze the resulting mush in ice cube containers you can bring them out regularly to add to your cooking etc.

Brambles are a pain in the neck (and everywhere else they can reach) but I read recently that this is not in fact a single plant but a family of plants rarely differentiated but counting about 2000 different types in Europe. There are apparently about 200 in Britain but are all equally unwelcoming, but there has been a magnificent crop of blackberries this year.

Juniper is another plant that can ‘annoy’. If brushed against the chemical it exudes can cause severe skin irritation. It is one of only three native conifers we have and is now under threat from a number of circumstances.

Climate is seen as a contributory cause restricting its potential growing sites to further north or higher above sea level but alternate land usage is the major problem. Places where it could thrive naturally without assistance and which are not being used commercially are limited but with help it can survive.

The increasing question as to the viability of grazing the uplands may help as overgrazing stops young bushes developing but surprisingly without an element of grazing the land is often in such a state that re-generation cannot even start. 

As is the case with many ancient species folklore attributes many beneficial qualities to the berry of this plant and modern research seems to support many of them.

Whilst we have better cures today for Cholera and Typhoid, if, as is threatened, penicillin becomes less effective, we may have to turn back to such traditional treatments.

Juniper essence is thought to aid infections of the waterworks, dysentery, tape worm and, when rubbed into the skin, can assist arthritis and muscle pain. Perhaps more common uses and benefits are the flavouring of many marinades, seasoning for game and the production of gin. The leaves are also used in many perfumed products and are added to the water used to clean hand and face towels not least those provided after a meal in many Indian restaurants.

                                                                                                                                    Roy Denney

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Wednesday, December 13, 2017