Fruit trees have always been very much valued in Irish culture. Apples and wild strawberries are some of the most commonly grown fruits in Ireland. Another very common fruit is the bilberry. In Ireland it is referred to as a fraughan. It is also called the blaeberry, whortleberry, winberry, and fraughan. While closely related to the blueberry, the bilberry is a different fruit. The blueberry is native to North America while the bilberry is native to Europe.
Bilberry fruits grow on low shrubs and are nearly black berries. They produce single or paired berries on the bush rather than clusters like blueberries. The bilberry is smaller than a blueberry, has a fuller taste, and is softer and juicier. They appear nearly black with a hint of purple. The pulp is red or purple, often staining the hands, lips, and tongue of those eating the raw fruit. Bilberry extract is even used in edible ink for stamping meats.
These fruits can be eaten fresh or made into jams, desserts, juices, or pies. In some areas they are used to flavor crepes and liqueurs.
Another common fruit in Ireland is the sloe tree or blackthorn. The sloe tree is a large shrub or small tree that grows to about 16 feet in height. It has dark, often blackish bark and stiff spiny branches. The leaves are oval with serrated edges. The flowers are about a half inch in diameter with five white petals. The fruit itself is just under a half inch in diameter and is black with an indigo waxy bloom. The flesh is thin with a strong astringent flavor.
The sloe is similar to a small plum. It is rather tart if eaten unless picked after the first few days of the autumn frost or frozen after harvest. However, they are suitable for preservatives and desserts. The juice is also used in liqueurs and wines.
Other uses of the sloe include providing a “cattle-proof” hedge. Because of its thorns, the shrubs stop cattle from crossing. Also, the juice of the berries can be used to dye linen a reddish color. When washed out it leaves the linen a pale blue. Blackthorn is also an excellent firewood. It burns slowly with good heat and little smoke. It can also be polished and used for tool handles and canes.