Blackthorn Weatherforecasting

Blackthorn Blossom

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!

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Hedgecutting

I am trying an experiment this year – to cut our mixed hawthorn hedge twice, instead of once. This weekend we have managed to complete the first cut, having started it two weeks ago. I’m glad to say that this year the birds finished nesting by then; some years we would not have been able to start in June! (Garden warblers usually seem to be the latest here, but I haven’t been hearing them this year.)

It has been interesting to see the different behaviours of the plants by changing the timing. While starting only about six weeks earlier than normal (yes it often takes us two weekends to do the whole thing, since we have to cut both our side and the ‘track’ side where the footpath runs) it was noticeable how much softer the hawthorn was and therefore how much easier it was to shred. However, the holly was so soft though that it kept clogging up, and the hazel, separated out to be composted, was definitely easier when woodier. But the first cut with most of the hazel has virtually made compost already, in just two weeks.

There is another aspect however which makes me glad to change our practice. I have been gradually trying to grow the hedge out wider on the track side, in order to protect the bank against inappropriate use of strimmers and weedkillers applied by other track user(s). By keeping the edge neat and cutting a little off more frequently, the hedge is starting to thicken up on that side. It was really encouraging to see the return of cow parsley this year for the first time in about a decade. There are also a few other wildflowers, besides the predictable nettles, brambles and stickyweed trying to keep humans at bay, and a large quantity of ivy helping to stabilise the soil. I am hoping these will all flourish in a more protected space.

Ne’er Cast A Clout ’till May Be Out

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.

Tree Stories 8 – Blackthorn

Blackthorn is now published on its own page; please use the link above.

Ripening Sloes

Ripening Sloes

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.

Planting out

Every year I fill the windowsills with pots of seedlings, which then need to be planted out in the garden when the weather is suitable. And at this point, it gets tricky!

The best advice is to ‘harden plants off’ gradually over a few days, so that they can adjust to the change of conditions, from potentially hot, dry windowsills to cold, frosty, windy, rainy outdoors. The light levels are also vastly different outside, especially in the ultraviolet spectrum. Unfortunately time and space will not allow me to do any of this. Instead, each year I try to first time the planting of my seeds so that the resulting plants will be just the right size to plant out successfully when the weather is also likely to be right, second I try to look for ‘weather windows’ when a few days are promised that are mild, overcast, and calm, and finally I give them what protection I can muster for the first few days – but this relies on their size being suitable!

Bottle Garden (for sweetcorn)

Bottle Garden (for sweetcorn)


Here is my ‘bottle garden’, the bottles now over ten years old but I have come to consider them vital for the successful establishment of sweetcorn. The grass mulch also helps to keep the moisture in. Experience tells me it takes four weeks from sowing seed to planting out – and around here ‘May is out’ (i.e. the Hawthorn is in flower) so I’m hoping they will do okay now!

My courgettes I was much more concerned about, as they are hard to protect. I always loose some plants to weather or slugs, so usually grow some extra and plant close, 18” intervals instead of the recommended 2′. This year, however, I asked for help on when to plant them. I was very surprised that the message came at around 8pm one evening, that it was the time to plant them out. However the forecast was for a mild night, and calm for the next few days, and the soil was nicely moist, so I thought I would give it a try. I also put copper rings around them to give a small bit of protection at ground level and from slugs – these were made from an ex-hot water tank. And the result? A few days on all five are growing strongly and looking really healthy, so much so that I would not know they had been moved had I not just planted them myself. If only the sweetcorn was doing as well!

Recently planted courgette plants

Recently planted courgette plants


I am reminded again how, when we accept that we do not and cannot know everything and so ask for help, and when we stay open to the answers in whatever form they come, they are sometimes unexpected. Nature knows best!