For the past two weeks, almost since the March equinox, the Blackthorn has been increasingly floriforous around here. It is a ghostly presence in the hedges, with its white flowers growing along the smaller branches and tops of Prunus spinosa trees, leaving their black trunks bare underneath – almost like the child dressing up at Samhain with black leggings and a white sheet over their heads. Yet the hawthorn which makes up the bulk of the hedges around here is now glowing green with fresh young leaves, creating a patchwork effect.
The old saying for this time of year was “Beware the Blackthorn Winter.” With high pressure dominating and the weather having turned beautifully sunny and warm for much of the country, I have felt that Spring has finally sprung – yes there is the occasional nightly frost, but nothing particularly long lasting since most days it has gone within an hour of sunrise. So I have been puzzled as to why Blackthorn blossom should suggest a return to winter, and decided to investigate further.
Patchwork of white Blackthorn and green Hawthorn
It turns out that normally the blackthorn flowers at the middle to end of April – when there is very often an unexpected cold period. This year winter has been mild, and the weather seems to be continuing that way, so I am thinking this has caused the blackthorn to be particularly early. It is not alone; bluebells have been flowering since the beginning of April around here, 3-4 weeks earlier than normal. But the result of this is that the Blackthorn is not coinciding with a cold spell as it usually does; MET office forecasts are currently predicting ‘rain or showers, turning wintery’ ie snow for next weekend…
I now await confirmation from another tree for my planting out, using that other favourite saying “Ne’er cast a clout ’till May be out.” It refers to the hawthorn blossom, which is usually in flower in mid-May around here – and has generally proved a reliable guide to the last frosts (provided I wait for my own hedge to flower rather than those in more sheltered locations). It already has flower buds, but as I have seen before, the tree is happy to keep its flowers in bud if necessary until the cold weather is over. Wise old trees!
This is an old saying that will no doubt be familiar to many. It refers to the May flowers, Hawthorn, rather than the month although it is generally May before the hedgerows are laden with their scented coverings; Beltane rarely has a good showing this far north, and certainly not this year!
I have written already about the strange winter we have had; Spring has been equally odd! After a warm week or two in early April, I noticed buds on the hawthorn hedges near me that were almost ready to pop open. Then it got cold again, and colder, and for three days in a row it snowed. The buds stayed exactly as they were. Swollen, almost open in places with hints of white petals showing, but frozen in time. Meanwhile the Blackthorn has been putting on a wonderful display with its flowers that come on bare branches and last for weeks if not months, from March to May, to get all the flowers pollinated.
Then the sun finally came out, the days warmed up to Summer temperatures rather than just Spring, and I thought that would be it. But no, there was another week to wait before the hawthorn finally revealed its flowers, and in that time a further couple of hard frosts. I have learned to trust. So I waited, and only now have I started my Spring sowing of tender vegetable seeds and the planting out of the many seedlings crowding my windowsills. I trust they will now be safe and happy in the garden.
Blackthorn is now published on its own page; please use the link above.
There are many blackthorn bushes mixed into the hawthorn hedges around where I live, and some years I have picked the sloes for gin or syrup. They are best after the first frosts. Both can just be enjoyed as a drink, but are also good for coughs and sore throats. Blackthorn flowers and leaves can be helpful for depression, as well as a good general tonic. Birds also enjoy the berries. The flowers are a useful source of nectar and pollen for bees, while several butterfly and moth caterpillars enjoy the leaves.
The wood is particularly hard and dense, being traditionally used for cudgels, blasting sticks and Irish shillelaghs, as well as tool handles and walking sticks. It is very much associated with witches, with the thorns being considered ideal for spellwork such as piercing a wax poppet, although in past times it was the witch hunters who used it; blackthorn seems to be the tree most likely to be used by someone wishing to harm others. The Ogham name for blackthorn, Straif, strife in modern English, is a good descriptor for it. A hard tree to love, it nevertheless does a useful job of keeping cattle in the fields, and in some versions, keeping princes out of Sleeping Beauty’s castle becoming impenetrable to all except true love. Similarly Rapunzel, where the prince looses his eyes on blackthorn bushes, to have it restored by his true love’s tears. Those who hold onto their pain and anger rarely have an easy time with blackthorn and are likely to get scratched by thorns with a reputation for turning cuts septic.
More positive interpretations and uses of Blackthorn vary widely. Some use it for facing death, and it is usually associated with the dark Goddess, Morrigan or Cailleach. Others for piercing negative attitudes in themselves or others, and befriending it can bring understanding of what causes negativity in your life. Yet more use it for protection, either psychically or physically, or as a wand for a banishing spell. My own interpretation, for strength in times of adversity, covers most of these at a deep level.
The Blackthorn was traditionally followed by its sister tree Hawthorn when used for healing – gentling and bringing love where blackthorn has pricked the hidden sores.