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.

Advertisements

Clearing the old

It is a fact of nature that some things have to die in order to make way for new growth. As a pagan I generally feel well connected to the cycles of the land, and when the time is right, can even enjoy being destructive as part of clearing the way for something positive to follow. So I have begun the work of transforming my garden in accordance with the plans I made earlier this year.

The first big job turns out to be the removal of a pyracanthus ‘hedge’. It was planted by the previous occupants so is probably 20-25 years old. Being evergreen, it hides the grey breeze block wall at the end of the garden from view all year round, and so is appreciated by the rest of the family from that point of view. As a pagan I should appreciate it for its white flowers and fiery berries, and the thorns which can cut to the root of a problem. However as a gardener, I have found it hard to love. The ground is too dry or too lacking in nutrients for it to flower, so after setting buds it turns brown and fails to make berries. (The raspberry bushes I planted immediately alongside have fruited well for 15 years, so I suspect the problem is the plant, or the original soil preparation. No amount of pruning to remove the dead bits has helped…) Being summer the rest of the family doesn’t notice its brown-ness, as there are plenty of other plants nearby to divert the eye, but to me it becomes an eyesore. In addition its thorns will go through any glove, and are frequently found some distance from the hedge after its annual prune, where I may not even have the benefit of hand protection. In short it is not a plant I have come to love, and part of the redesign gave me pleasure in finding an excuse to get rid of it and put in something I do like. Viburnum tinus, or cotoneaster, or box or hebe, or just about anything evergreen and non-prickly!

The hedge is fighting back. I am covered in scratches and bruises, and have thorns stuck in my fingertips and elsewhere that have to be dug out. There are substantial thorns on every stem or trunk, no matter how old or thick they have become, right down to ground level. Not wanting to risk trying to shred such an awkward plant with its twisted branches, they have to be cut up small enough to go in the bin, over a series of weeks as it is only collected fortnightly.

But then I looked at it a different way. This plant has protected our garden from intruders, and cows, for a long time. It may not have always looked pretty, but it succeeded in the job it was asked to do. Therefore in order to remove it without major difficulty, I have found it helpful to thank it for its efforts. It is so easy to forget to properly acknowledge what was!

And the results? With even a small part of it now gone, I am finding some rewards. M has discovered she can now hide around the corner from the raspberry bushes and pinch the fruit from the back, and even more importantly, she can see the cows or horses or donkeys in the field behind without me having to lift her up. Maybe I shouldn’t plant right up to the wall!