The blackthorn is a shrubby tree and is unusual because the rich white flowers appear in their profusion some considerable time before the foliage, consequently it is very easy to identify in hedgerows and on waste ground at this time of year. The beautiful blossom appears in early spring when the weather can be cold and wintry and it makes a strong contrast with the black bark. Another feature is its dense, twisted branches of formidable thorns, hence the tree's name. A ‘blackthorn winter' is a term used for a rather cold springtime and this year we have definitely had a blackthorn winter in Northern England.
Because it spreads suckers which in turn produce thorny branches, the blackthorn can quickly form an impenetrable tangle which is highly useful as a hedge or barrier, deterring even the most wilful of cattle. Birds love the blackthorn too, because they can shelter or nest in complete safety, knowing that very few predators can reach them inside that thorny refuge.
The blackthorn's fruit is the sloe, but in its raw state, it is virtually inedible. It looks like a beautiful little plum with a delightful blue-black skin and its attractive appearance belies its bitterness. However it can be made into a very palatable sloe gin, and some country women manage to produce tasty jam and even wine from it.
The wood is also useful because it is tough and polishes up well. Because the tree is rather small, it can only be used to make small items, such as the teeth of rakes. It also makes useful walking sticks; Irish cudgels, known as shillelaghs, are fashioned from this wood whilst another of its uses is in marquetry.
Not surprisingly, a good deal of superstition surrounds the blackthorn, with some believing that a blossoming branch should never be brought indoors because it is an omen of death. I think this arises from an old belief that Christ's crown of thorns was made from this thorny wood and so it has acquired a reputation for being unlucky. In some districts, there was a curious ritual where a crown of thorns was made from the blackthorn on New Year's morning, and then scorched in the household fire. The charred remains were then hung with mistletoe to ward off bad luck.
The blackthorn is often confused with the hawthorn which is very common as a hedgerow plant and was used extensively in early land enclosures. It has strongly scented creamy white or pink flowers in May, hence their wellknown name and the song, ‘Here we go gathering knots of may.' The Holy Thorn of Glastonbury is a variety of hawthorn known as biflora which continues to flourish in that region. The story is that Joseph of Arimathea, owner of the tomb in which Christ was placed after the Crucifixion, came to Glastonbury and stuck his hawthorn staff into the earth, whereupon it took root. It flourished to produce the famous Holy Thorn - and in fact, biflora does come into flower around Christmas time in that part of England. There is no evidence that Joseph of Arimathea ever came to this country although he was said to have built a chapel at Glastonbury. This was destroyed by the Saxons in the seventh century.
And finally, a gentleman from Knaresborough, tells me that the brown hairstreak butterfly lays its single tiny egg in the fork of a young blackthorn twig. This occurs in August when it is sunny with the temperature more than 20 degrees, but the nearest known colony of these rare insects is in Lincolnshire!
Posted by Peter N. Walker @ 12:25 PM GMT [Link]