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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.

  Leave a reply


  1. Does anyone have a picture of the thorns that you get on sloe bushes? I’ve been looking at images of sloes on Google and none of them seem to have thorns. Strange, as I keep reading that you can tell the difference between sloes and damsons/bullaces because only sloes have thorns.

    • Nicolette

      Exactly what I’m trying to find out!
      I’ve picked & froze some that I was told are sloes, but then someone mentioned thorns and surely if the shrub had thorns I would’ve noticed picking them without gloves?

  2. Sloe confused

    We just picked a huge bag of nicely ripe sloes. I’ve popped them in the freezer overnight before the bottling with the gin and sugar, but us the fruit meant to visibly look any different? I seem to recall someone saying the fruit should have visibly split, but it’s such a long time since I made sloe gin I really can’t remember. Are they OK to go, or should I defrost and prick them? (I used to put the frozen fruit straight into the gin I think). Thanks!

    • Well done on picking sloes so early. I’m leaving it as late as possible.

      If you have frozen the fruit and they have visibly split then no need to prick. If they are still `complete` then prick them 2 or 3 times.

      Happy brewing.

    • Elaine Harrison

      Freezing sloes tends to split the skins so no need to prick. If they still look intact after defrosting just take handfuls at a time and roll over your cheese grater to damage the skins or prick with cocktail stick.

  3. I have just collected lots of sloes to make sloe Vodka.
    Do I take the stones out before adding to the vodka.
    Or have I got the wrong fruit!!


    • Simon Gascoigne

      It’s Jin traditionaly used with sloes but what’s the harm in braking the mold.

    • Janet Somerset

      Sloes should have a frost on them before picking but you can get round this by putting them in the freezer for 24 hours.
      Just prick them well, one third fill a bottle with sloes, preferably coloured bottle like gin bottle to keep light out and colour in, add one third of sugar and then top up with gin/ vodka (gin definitely best!). Up end bottle from time to time to move the sugar and by Christmas it will be fantastic!

      • Elaine Harrison

        I would also pour through a sieve Near the end of the fermenting process and rebottle then sieve again before drinking.

    • No need to remove stones. Just prick (or freeze) add the booze and sugar and away you go.
      Try to use decent vodka as cheaper stuff can be a bit harsh. The longer you leave it the better it gets.

  4. Tony Jackson

    Just picked a small tubful of Bullace, distinct from Damsons as the bush/tree does have thorns, distinct from Sloes as they are ‘just edible’ not astringent and bitter tart like sloes & they’re 2x 3x the size of Sloes. I’m going to make some Bullace Vodka 🙂 along with my Blackberry Vodka… Roll on Christmas!

  5. Stephen Spark

    Have just completed a successful couple of days picking sloes, damsons and plums, all growing wild along the same footpath but ignored by almost everyone. The sloes are slightly harder, smaller and definitely more bitter/tart than damsons, which have a glorious, deep, rich flavour. Here at least both the sloe and damson hedges have thorns, but they are not too difficult to avoid. The productivity of the plants varies a lot from year to year. Last year was very poor for sloes after the hedge was cut; this year was better, but other bushes had very little fruit. The damsons were particularly good in quality and quantity after three thin years. Blackberries were a total washout in this part of Surrey, and elderberries were scarce too. But the plums are abundant and magnificent. So now we are well stocked with damson jam, sloe gin, plum jam and plum brandy!

  6. I’ve made sloe jelly in the past using the sloes remaining after making sloe gin. It’s been successful to a point.

    There’s next to no flesh on the sloes, just a big seed inside, so they can add flavour but not really bulk or texture. They’re extremely tart – especially at this time of year because they won’t be ripe until late September / October and they’ll still be tart then. Personally, I’d stick to making sloe gin with them (or sloe rum using Bacardi) and go get some more blackberries. Or use apples to bulk up the blackberries.

    • Elaine Harrison

      I also made a sloe jelly with the sloes sieved from my slow gin. I used the jelly with my Christmas turkey.

  7. Clare peters

    Just been wild fruit picking, picked what I thought were wild damson, turns out I have picked slow berries. Can I still add them to my blackberries to make jam. I have only ever heard of slow gin.

    • Laura Keller

      We used to make “Hedgerow Jam”, which consisted of whatever we picked on a particular day. That often included damsons, sloes, blackberries, hawthorne berries, rose hips, even the odd beechnut, etc. No reason not to mix your damsons with blackberries!

  8. Simon Gascoigne

    I went to a local attraction and there were loads of plants that had a thorny stem purple flowers and the fruit were very much like tomatoes can you give me some idea what they are?

    • Anna Coles

      Were they ‘Medlar’ fruit? I have not seen the medlar flowers – so I don’t know if they are purple? But, I have seen the ‘medlar’ fruit, and they are sizeable fruits, larger than ‘rose hips’ but altogether similar?
      (Go to ‘Grow veg’ website;look up ‘medlar’ fruit).
      Hope that helps!

  9. Hi
    I have picked what I belive to be sloes (but am new to picking so don’t want to poison myself!)
    They were growing very high in the hedgerow and

    Is there a facility here to upload a photo for someone to identify?

  10. Susanne

    I was picking cherry plums to make wine and a passerby told me that they also make excellent jam.

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