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Identifying Sloe Berries from Damson Plums

It’s that time of the year again when everybody (because it’s all joy playing with the cool kids, right?) goes out looking on the highway for sloe berries to exploit their extraordinary tartness as a gin or vodka infusion, or as a jam ingredient. Unfortunately a lot of these people have brought home the equally lovely, but not quite on the money, damson plum. If, after reading this post, you found and used damsons, don’t shoot the messenger.

Sloe Berries are Visually Distinctive

A sloe berry is easy to recognise in that the berry, often covered in that lovely blush, looks remarkably similar to a 5 cent piece sized blueberry in the palm of your hand. When you bite the berry your mouth will dry out instantly. Pucker up. There’s no mistaking it’s power in that regard and once you’ve tasted one sloe berry it will be easy to identify the sloes from damsons in future.

The sloes will generally be found as hedges or along farm fences. Walk up to the plant and look closely at the leaves. These leaves have fine serrated edges on branches that are dark; thus the sloes are found on a plant called the Blackthorn (Prunus spinosa). On the reaching limbs you’ll see (and they can be difficult to spot at first) wooden thorns up to a couple of inches long and a fair way apart. Your chances of being spiked by these thorns rapidly approach zero, so don’t worry.

Damson Plums can be Close Imposters of Sloe Berries

A very similar and often mistaken fruit along roadsides are the lovely blushed and slightly larger damson plum. To the uneducated eye they look just like sloe berries, except side by side they don’t look similar at all. Beyond the blush, that is, and the hedgerow where you might have discovered them.

Damson plums are more the shape of a grape, for example. Side by side the sloe berry is round like a blueberry and the damson is slightly oval like a dark grape. If you taste the damson plum it’s kind of tart, but nothing in the league of the tartness you get from a sloe berry. The vines are similar, but damson plums lack any of those large thorns and the wood isn’t anywhere as dark as a Blackthorn.

I also notice that when being infused into gin or vodka the sloe berries produce a vibrant red pigment; in contrast to the damson plums more plum-like and less vibrant colour infusion. Only a few days ago I saw somebody’s Sloe Gin infusion in a 5 litre glass demijohn and realised those were damson plums, not sloe berries. I kept my mouth shut, of course.

Sloe berries on the left and damson plums on the right (the picture below, although those could well be black bullace on the right due to spherical shape). When the examples are together it’s quite obvious which are the sloe berries. Sloe looks like a blueberry/currant style of fruit; the other looks more like a plum. The sloe berries are as small as a five cent piece. Sloe berries go blacker as they ripen and lose their bloom, ripening from the ends of branches inward. Best to pick them then.

My Adventures with Sloe Berries as Wine and Mead

In my basement there is a 20 litre bucket where I placed 8.8 litres of boiling water over 4.2 kilograms of sloe berries. The bucket is sealed for 2 months and when I open it in early May there should be a thick green carpet of mould. I’ll remove and discard the mould in one piece, of course. But then, after straining the liquid, I’ll use 5 litres to make Sloe Berry Wine. The rest will be added to 5 kilograms of blackberries and about 7 kilograms of honey to make a lovely Sloe & Blackberry Mead.

No, I didn’t have a clue about the difference between sloe berries and damson plums, either. They’re both good, but in many ways different. If you want that real tartness you’ll want to better identify the sloe berries. Good luck 🙂

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About the Author

Steven Clark Steven Clark - the stand up guy on this site

My name is Steven Clark (aka nortypig) and I live in Southern Tasmania. I have an MBA (Specialisation) and a Bachelor of Computing from the University of Tasmania. I'm a photographer making pictures with film. A web developer for money. A business consultant for fun. A journalist on paper. Dreams of owning the World. Idea champion. Paradox. Life partner to Megan.

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