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A quick guide to identifying some hedgerow fruit

Photo: Wild cherry plums

Photo: Wild cherry plums

I’ve had quite a few emails recently about identifying hedgerow fruit so I thought that it might be helpful to post some of the pictures that I have. Sloes, wild damsons, wild cherry plums and bullaces all came from the same family – albeit distant relations. They all have stones and the bushes have similar leaves.

Photo: Sloe on a branch

Photo: Sloe on a branch

The main problem seems to be differentiating sloes and wild damsons as they are both small and dark. Sloe bushes have sharp thorns and wild damson trees do not. Damsons have longer stems so hang and look more like a tiny plum. Sloes have shorter stems and hug the branches more.


Steve pointed out (see comments) that sloes can be confused with Deadly Nightshade – you can see some photos Deadly Nightshade photos here.

 Wild plums taste like domestic plums (from sharp Mirabelles to sweet Victorias). Wild bullaces taste like greengages. Wild damsons are very sharp and sloes taste almost bitter.

Photo: Wild plums and bullace

Photo: Wild plums and bullace

Of course the best pocket guide to hedgerow foraging is Richard Maybe’s Food for Free (Collins GEM). It’s now on offer on Amazon for under £3.00.

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  1. i live in kent uk and all im seeing this year are wild plums sloes and damsons.we have made damson jam and i before i found this site have made damson vodka im just hoping i havent put to much suger in.its now 16-10-09 and when im driving round i say to wife look at all those damsons up high but im working on it . i wont to try your recipe , this is a great site glad i found it

  2. I’m confused again now. I collected some of whatever damson/sloe fruit it is that I have this afternoon. And there is no question that many of them have a strong bloom and do actually look quite blue. But then ordinary damsons and other dark plums, let alone the wild ones, can have a bloom as well. So is that correctly really indicative only of sloes?

    There are lots of scrubby related things growing where mine are, and I must admit that I noticed that one of them, at least, might be slightly different. Most of what I now think are wild damsons seem to want to grow into rather leggy small trees with the odd very long individual sharp spine (I only found one on looking for them). The fruit, then, is oval and looks exactly like a small damson, for all many do have a bloom and do look quite blue, and apropos the picture and advice above, they have reasonably long stems as well. And when I was picking them today, I was stuffing a good many into my mouth as I was doing so. They are not terribly sweet, but they are certainly not sour and they are are very pleasantly edible as they are, albeit quite intense.

    The other related growth there is there seems more bush like in form, and has never fruited abundantly in the same way. That seems to have rather more spines too, and much shorter, although it could still never really be described as thorny as, say, hawthorn is. There were two lone fruit that I could see, neither of which had any bloom left but which did happen to be a bit smaller and rounder and the stem happened to be shorter too. And when I tried them, they were really quite sour and slightly set my teeth on edge. I wouldn’t go on eating those. It could be that they were just small round variations of the same thing that didn’t happen to be as ripe. But on the other hand, maybe that is a sloe that just doesn’t fruit well, hence hasn’t been noticed before. There was a reference to sloes being like deadly nightshade and those two single fruits could indeed be descibed as quite similar, whereas the much more prolific others (if actually different) really couldn’t be.

    But given all growing in the same place, albeit in what must be a pretty ancient copse, one would assume that they are all related. If they ae not, does anyone know if sloes are more affected by pretty heavy shade, which would explain not fruiting? And is there not an argument that they are all pretty closely related anyway and that there may be variations that span the divide?

    The advice of anyone with practical experience of identification of both would be hugely appreciated. Thanks

  3. Sloes really do look blue- they have a very strong ‘blush’ that makes them easy to identify. I suspect they are shrivelling early as there has been so little rain to keep them plump as they are not usually ready to fall until after the first frosts.

  4. This is such a good site!

    But re the sloe versus damson issue, I had long been a little disappointed to think that a tree I had was wild damson rather than sloe, albeit never too certain either way. It fell last year, though, and is now leaning on a peculiar, just about surviving, pear tree that produces a few big but totally inedible (not even cookable) pears. Half of the damson tree is still alive though, and it has still fruited relatively well, although not like usual. There are smaller young trees in the vicinity, so I am not worried that it is lost. But I am thinking they are all obviously suffering from being in too heavy shade there, from too much hazel (should be chopped/coppiced). From foraging efforts, are damsons seen to prefer bright situations or semi shade?

    But having decided that I didn’t think they were sloes, because they are oval rather than round, and nowhere near so sour that you can’t eat them as they are, I am now delighted to think that they are more rare than the sloe. I was still somewhat perplexed at being told that the wild damson doesn’t have thorns though, because mine certainly does. So thank you very much for the clarification above that that is right. They’re not standard type thorns, and are not many in number, but are quite lethal individual very long spikes.

    I have got cherry plums as well, which I hadn’t been sure were wild or not, but I would love to put some bullaces (which I had had no idea were wild greengages) in as well. Does anyone know where one might be able to acquire one to buy?

  5. sloe on the uptake

    MY FOLKS PICKED ME SOME SLOES AND THERE WERE SMALL (WHICH i took to be sloes proper), large (like, gobstopper size) which I took to be black bullace, and medium. What were these? They taste sry like sloes but won’t fit in the neck of the gin bottle? Wild plum?

  6. a week or so on and after several pickings and closer inspection, I have decided that the fruit I have been picking are indeed sloes. They look like damsons but are round. What threw me was the size of them, they are MUCH bigger than a £1 coin, especially on the sunny side of the bush(I had to navigate a rather precarious fence to reach it, but it was well worth it!)Also, I thought there were no thorns, but they found me, and are also pretty huge. I always thought sloes were much smaller…more like big blackcurrants!!

  7. Two fab finds in one day – a friend and I went a-foraging in our Kent village this morning and discovered a narrow lane full of sloes, wild damsons and bullace(we were fortunate to have with us a team of keen toddler fruit-pickers) I had bullace trees in the garden I grew up in but my parents never did anything with them so I set out to discover what should best be done with such bounty & found this site – not sure which find I’m more excited about!

  8. I’ve just returned from a few days away in sunny Cornwall. While we were there we decided to walk around the headland at Port Isaac, taking the inland walk to Port Quinn. However, we never did finish the walk as on the way we found these wonderful, rich, plump sloes, so out came the plastic bag – and the rest is history – or will be in a few months time when the Port Isaac Sloe Gin will be ready. Then we will remember the wonderful sunny day and fabulous views of the North Cornwall coastline!

  9. Fiona Nevile

    Hi Colm

    Thanks so much for this input. Much appreciated.

  10. Sloes come from the blackthorn bush
    and haws(red berries) come from the whitethorn bush. At least thats what we call them in Ireland.
    If you see a sloe it has an almost pastel purple
    apperance, but if you rub it,it reveals a dark
    Purple/Blue skin.

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