Life in the sloe lane

How does this English for­agers’ favourite per­form un­der New Zealand con­di­tions?

NZ Gardener - - Contents - STORY: JO MCCAR­ROLL

Gin lovers, here’s the plant for you!

If you get a chance to visit the South Ty­rol Mu­seum of Ar­chae­ol­ogy in Bolzano, Italy you will no doubt meet its most fa­mous res­i­dent Ötzi the Ice­man. Ötzi, to whom the mu­seum is devoted, is a hunter or pos­si­bly a shep­herd who lived roughly 5300 years ago and who caused some­thing of an ar­chae­o­log­i­cal sen­sa­tion when he was dis­cov­ered, per­fectly pre­served along with his cloth­ing and equip­ment, in 1991. One of the things found in his stom­ach was the pits of the fruit of the black­thorn ( Prunus spinosa), com­monly known as sloe berries. Sloe berries, the mu­seum dis­play notes, would have been rich in vi­ta­mins and min­er­als, and helped Ötzi ward off thirst as he wan­dered across var­i­ous glaciers.

This is the first recorded in­stance in his­tory of the hu­man use of this fruit. An an­ces­tor of the mod­ern cul­ti­vated plum tree, Prunus spinosa, aka the black­thorn or sloe, is still a com­mon hedgerow plant across Europe but par­tic­u­larly fetish-ised by English for­agers, who make jams, jel­lies, liqueurs and – most fa­mously – an in­fused gin with the small pur­ple highly as­trin­gent fruit.

The fond­ness with which this plant is re­garded by many British ex­pats is some­thing of a mys­tery to Neville Chun, a Lower Hutt or­chardist and nurs­ery­man, who has sold sloe trees on Trade Me for the last five years.

“Black­thorn is ab­so­lutely noth­ing to look at,” he ad­mits. “It looks like a whole lot of thorny branches with small leaves. Even the white flow­ers, which form be­fore the leaves ap­pear, are small and you might miss them.”

Neville, who grows the Ja­panese citrus ‘Yuzu’ com­mer­cially, was sell­ing a va­ri­ety of other un­usual ed­i­ble plants on­line, in­clud­ing fin­ger limes, Bud­dha hand citrus, pomegranates and wasabi. A cus­tomer en­quired if he had black­thorn and he tracked a cou­ple down at a now de­funct Auck­land nurs­ery. These plants, which Neville sus­pects had been grown from seed, were a wiry tan­gle, with a lot of thorny growth com­ing as suck­ers from the base. The nat­u­ral habit of this plant is to grow into a dense thicket – one of the rea­sons it is so wide­spread across Europe is be­cause it fairly quickly forms a stock-proof hedge. Sus­pect­ing this growth habit would make har­vest­ing more chal­leng­ing, Neville sent bud­wood to Har­risons Trees in Palmer­ston North, and had it grafted onto plum root­stock.

“Graft­ing gives black­thorn a dif­fer­ent form,” he says. “It has a nice strong leader and a nice head, and it doesn’t send up growth as suck­ers like it does when grown from a cut­ting or as a seedling grown tree.” The spinosa in the botan­i­cal name is Latin for spiny, and this plant is well named, he says. Plant care­fully, away from thor­ough­fares, and prune reg­u­larly to keep the cen­tre open. “If you just let it grow naturally as a hedgerow, you’d put your arm in to pick berries and never get it out!” But black­thorn is fairly easy to grow here: pro­lific, once they start fruit­ing, and self-fer­tile, he says. The berries or sloes form in au­tumn and stay on the tree un­til early win­ter. Birds do not seem to no­tice them, he says – per­haps be­cause of their mouth-puck­er­ing bit­ter­ness when raw. (Al­though English gar­den and food writ­ers wax lyri­cally about how the fruit sweet­ens up after a few frosts, and ap­par­ently then it can be eaten straight off the tree.) Neville still prop­a­gates it through graft­ing – he has tried cut­tings for the last three years and so far has been un­suc­cess­ful at get­ting any to strike. It can also be grown from seed, al­though the seed needs to go through first a warm spell then a cold spell to break their dor­mancy. Naturally found grow­ing in for­est mar­gins and open wood­lands across much of Europe, this plant seems to thrive in most sit­u­a­tions and soils in New Zealand, Neville says, al­though you are un­likely to get fruit in re­gions where it does not get enough win­ter chill. It seems un­trou­bled by pests and dis­eases here too, he says. The wood of this tree is ex­cep­tion­ally hard, and prized for mak­ing walk­ing sticks – it’s the tra­di­tional ma­te­rial used to make shil­le­lagh, the stout Ir­ish clubs some­times used for fight­ing. The flow­ers and petals are used in var­i­ous ways, both medic­i­nally and to make teas and syrups. But it is the fruit that is the main draw for gar­den­ers want­ing to grow this plant in New Zealand, Neville ad­mits. It can be used to make jams, jel­lies and pre­serves, and to in­fuse vine­gar. In var­i­ous Euro­pean coun­tries, sloe berries are used in pas­tries and they are also an in­gre­di­ent in the tra­di­tional Basque liqueur patxaran, served as a di­ges­tif in some parts of Spain. But mainly, Neville ad­mits, Kiwi gar­den­ers seem keen to use the sloes for only one thing – to make that fa­mous sloe gin! “I find that mainly they are bought by English ex­pats who talk about mak­ing gin,” he says. “A few peo­ple who have bought from me men­tioned they plan to use the sloe berries to make jam. But they are few and far be­tween!”

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