Blackthorn in Blossom

Blackthorn ink drawing

Bedraggled Blackthorn. Pen and ink sketch. Fiona Gall 2024

A few weeks ago, it quite literally popped out of the hedgerow on my afternoon walk by the workshop. 
First, I thought it was Hawthorn but I have now discovered that that comes out a little later. Blackthorn is the FIRST wild tree in the UK to blossom, signalling the coming of spring. You know, the weird in-between time. The signs are there, you wish it was but it is still disappointingly way too cold.
Blackthorn is a surprisingly interesting tree. 
Did you know?
  • The blackthorn tree is wild and native to the UK
  • It is the first tree to blossom, before there is even a hint of spring
  • It flowers before its leaves appear
  • It often flowers when we get spells of wintry, cold weather and has given rise to the phrase ‘Blackthorn winter’
  • It is the tree of the infamous sloe berries. (remember where you spot them because in autumn after the first frost you can return and pick them)
  • Blackthorn is associated with witchcraft and it is said that witches’ wands and staffs were made using blackthorn wood.
photograph of blackthorn blossom

Photo of Blackthorn blossom.

In matter of fact and practical terms:
Blackthorn is a member of the Rose family: Rosaceae and its berries are an ancestor of our cultivated plums. Its early flowering provides a valuable source of nectar and pollen for bees in spring and many birds will nest in its dense protective thorny thickets and feast on the sloes in autumn.
It is thickly invested with strong thorns, which are long sharp spines. These form in place of twigs and can give painful stabs and scratches which usually turn septic. Because of this It was used by farmers to make a thick hedge that held in the cattle, the original barbed wire if you will,  hence why you see so much of it growing in the countryside.
The dark branches provide a stark contrast to its bright white star like unruly blossom, that burst open in early spring before its leaves unfurl. Blackthorn is linked to both healing and death. Parts of the tree were used to make a healing tea to treat fevers and flavour gin. Its thorns were used to make weapons such as the Irish shillelagh; cudgel/ walking stick and ‘pins of slumber’ were thorns coated in poison. Interestingly it is a hermaphrodite, meaning both male and female reproductive parts are found in one flower which only adds to its dualistic nature.

blackthorn botantical illustrationSloe or blackthorn (Prunus spinosa L.): flowering stem with separate fruit and segments of flower and fruit, also a description of the plant and its uses. Coloured line engraving by C.H.Hemerich, c.1759, after T.Sheldrake. Wellcome Collection.


Folklore, Mythology and symbolism


It has long been associated with Faeries, Witches and Magic. Often considered a darker, more sinister tree than its sister the Hawthorn, it rules over the darker winter months for this is when it is in its element.
When you consider all the facts, it comes as no surprise that folklore and myths of a darker nature are associated with the Blackthorn.
The Blackthorn is linked to dark magic and witches who, it was said, would use the branches for staffs, twigs for wands and thorns as stabbing needles in dummies to cause harm to their victims. But I have also read that you can perform a similar ritual of pinning dummies for protection against negativity. I believe where you place your intention is what really matters. In addition, there are stories of witches being burnt on Pires of Blackthorn.
A curious side note: The Lady Usher opens parliament holding a black rod made of blackthorn. You can see an example of a witch’s black rod made of blackthorn in the museum of witch craft in Cornwall.                                                                                                                                                       
In Celtic lore it is a sacred tree to the crone aspect of the triple goddess and is known in different guises as Morrigan or Cailleach or Beira, ‘Goddess of Winter’—all associations with the waning of life, the waning year, and the waning moon. She is depicted at times carrying a staff of blackthorn wood and often accompanied by her pathfinder crow or raven. The fairy who guards the blackthorn is known as the Lunantisidhe or Lunantishee—the moon fairy.                                            
The triple goddess represents the Maiden, the mother and the crone, each of which symbolizes both a separate stage in the female life cycle and a phase of the moon. As blackthorn is active during the darker part of the year it is no wonder that it represents the shadowy older crone aspect.
In the Irish tradition the blackthorn is actually codified into the in the early medieval alphabet Ogham, which was used to write the early Irish language. ‘Straif’ is the 14th letter of the Ogham alphabet, it means ‘blackthorn’. This ancient alphabet is rather more complicated than straight translation, but essentially ᚎ = straif = blackthorn. It is designated one of the Eight Chieftain Trees on the Ogham Tract and is said to be the ‘Increaser of Secrets’. ‘Straif’ is thought to be the origin of the word ‘strife’. 
Straif means ‘sulphur’, a substance with a long history of associations with the underworld, including the Christian hell. It is also highly important in the study of alchemy. As an ogham, straif the blackthorn reminds us that magic is the nature of the universe and that wonders are the normal reality of the world.
To this day, the ominous qualities of the blackthorn are maintained through the classic fairy tale of Sleeping Beauty, as it is through a thick hedge of blackthorn that the prince must battle to save his slumbering princess. It was also a ‘pin of slumber’ that sleeping beauty pricked her finger with promptly falling asleep for a hundred years. Interestingly the average lifespan of a blackthorn is also said to be around a hundred years.
Prunus spinosa is a fascinating tree with a rich history of folklore and mythology in the British Isles and the Isle of Ireland. It is a reminder of the deep connection between humans and the natural world.