The blackthorn winter is upon us; flower-frosted branches of blossom adorn the hedgerows, painting the countryside in shrouds of snowy white. The blossom usually appears during a cold snap, hence the winter soubriquet, and the colder nights of recent days have triggered the flowering. A common hedging plant-its Latin name, Prunus spinosa, translates as spiny plum-disappears from our thoughts after the spring blossom disappears, but returns when the bitter-tasting, purple sloes appear in the autumn. The fruit grips to the branches long after its autumnal gold-and-crimson leaves have been shed.

As well as making excellent stockproof hedges, the wood can be made into the finest walking sticks, which were much admired for their natural polish by the Victorians. William Cobbett was a great fan of the tree and its sloes, ‘which have served love-song poets, in all ages, with a simile whereby to describe the eyes of their beauties’.

It was the traditional wood for Irish shillelaghs, a fierce cudgel secured to the wrist by a strap and described by the chairman of the Pharmacology Department at University of California, Los Angeles as ‘an ancient Hibernian tranquiliser’. The sloes, of course, can be added to gin, brandy or whisky to make excellent tipples for the hip flask.

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