Blackthorn was already blossoming on bushes in sheltered spots at the beginning of this month; probably triggered by the spell of warm sunny days we had back then before winter blew back in with the current icy winds.
More usually, the blossom of the Blackthorn appears later in March and early April, coinciding with the time when in the not-so-distant past we would have half-expected to have been chilled by cold winds blowing in from the north and north-east. By then hedges and thickets of the dense thorny shrub would be smothered in frothy pure white blossom, looking very much like a covering of snow, and so a cold Spring became traditionally know as a Blackthorn Winter.
Native throughout the British Isles, Blackthorn most often grows to be a large shrub that spreads by suckers to form dense hedges or thickets up to 13′ (4m) high, but it may occasionally makes a small tree. These dense thorny growths make virtually impenetrable barriers keeping humans and grazing animals at bay providing valuable protection for plants growing beneath it and a safe haven for birds that nest amongst its branches. It grows in a variety of places; on the edge of scrub woodlands, in hedges and locally here extensively at the top of Bryn Euryn and the Little Orme.
During the winter when the leaves have fallen you can see better the dense criss-crossed knobbly network of dark twig, although many are covered with layers of velvety lichens and festooned with Reindeer Moss.
The flowers appear in a dense mass, almost hiding the thorny twigs, in early Spring before the leaves break from their buds. Individual flowers are small, about ½” (60cm) across; they are pure white have five petals and central stamens tipped with gold.
Starwort was an alternative name for Blackthorn blossoms, which exactly describes their appearance.
IMPORTANCE TO INSECTS
The flowers are pollinated by a variety of insects that take the nectar and pollen in early Spring. Its foliage is a food plant for the caterpillars of many moths, including the Lackey, Magpie, Common Emerald, Small Eggar, Swallow-tailed and Yellow-tailed. It is also used by the Black and Brown Hairstreak butterflies.
The leaves are small and alternate, a dull green above and hairy beneath.
The fruit of the Blackthorn is of course the Sloe, round in shape and purplish-black in colour with a grey bloom. They are not good to eat – a raw Sloe is so tart and sour it makes your tongue go numb and your teeth feel ‘furry’.
It’s thought that the Blackthorn may be one of the parents of the damson and other domestic plums and its fruits have long been used to infuse gin to produce Sloe Gin, which to do properly traditionally involves waiting for the fruits to be ‘frosted’ before picking. These days freezing weather in late autumn isn’t a given, so we stick ours in the freezer for a while instead. Sloes are also sometimes mixed with Elderberries in the making of Elderberry wine, which when served hot makes a soothing and comforting remedy for a bad cold.
The juice from Sloes also makes an indelible ink and the whole fruit yields a strong red dye.
If you scrape the bark from Blackthorn it shows orange beneath it, but the sapwood is pale yellow and the heartwood is brown. Being more of a shrub than a tree the trunks and branches don’t reach more than a few centimetres in diameter, but the wood is hard and tough and polishes well. In furniture making its use was for decorative inlays and marquetry work. More practically its durability made it useful for making the teeth of hay-rakes and it has long been used for cutting as walking sticks. Blackthorn is also the traditional wood used for the making of the Irish shillelagh, or cudgel.
Blackthorn is depicted in many fairy tales throughout Europe as a tree of ill omen. Called Straif in the Ogham, this tree has the most sinister reputation in Celtic tree lore.
Blackthorn is the tree traditionally associated with Black Magic. Witches used walking sticks made from Blackthorn, which was known as a ‘black rod’ (no association with the Parliamentary Black Rod). They also allegedly used the long thorns for sticking into wax effigies of their enemies in order to cause them pain and wreak their revenge.