Life

The blackthorn is a hardy survivor

May 13th, 2016 5:00 PM

By Southern Star Team

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The only disadvantage to living close to the sea is the difficulty in getting anything to grow in the garden. I’ve long given up my efforts with vegetables and even the plants and trees are seriously struggling to get established in this challenging environment. 

However, a wild patch of blackthorn in the adjacent field is thriving in the salt-laden air.  The vigorous thicket is glorious to behold  at present as its bare branches are covered with starry white blossoms. 

Blackthorn is a hardy survivor that is also beautiful and bountiful and certainly warrants respect.

Common shrub

Blackthorn is a deciduous shrub that is found throughout Ireland, on most types of soil and in a wide variety of habitats. Left to its own devices on shrub-land, it forms dense thickets but rarely grows taller than 4m (13ft). 

Blackthorn also grows in woodland but needs plenty of light so it tends to be found on the edges of woods and in hedgerows. Here on the coast, it is shaped by the prevailing westerly wind.

A rigid bush, blackthorn sends out many branches which divide repeatedly to form a close network of twigs, each of which ends in  a sharp point. 

The bark is usually quite smooth and blackish – hence the name – but the younger shoots are covered with downy hairs. The older branches are often encrusted with lichens.

The blackthorn hedgerow is one of the best protections against grazing animals. Its twigs, branches and stems positively bristle with stiff spiny thorns which form an impenetrable barrier. 

So it’s long been popular as a hedgerow shrub in Ireland. It was also planted as a ‘nurse plant’ around other, more vulnerable species, enabling them to become established without being grazed by animals.

Early flowers

The blackthorn flowers early, in March and April, before the leaves appear. Each flower has five pure white petals and is pollinated by insects. Some years, the starry blossoms cover the twigs in such profusion that you can hardly see the bare bark beneath.

There is a belief that blackthorn tends to blossom in a cold spell of weather, however, early spring is often chilly so that’s a hard one to prove or disprove.

The blackthorn and its relative the hawthorn are members of the rose family and, up close, their flowers look very much like those of single roses. 

It’s easier to distinguish between the two species when they are in flower. The blackthorn generally blossoms against bare branches while the hawthorn always has its leaves out before it flowers. Both of these trees produce incredible shows of snowy blossoms that lift the heart in springtime.

The leaves of the blackthorn unfurl in late April and early May. The oval leaves are small – about 2.5cm (2in) long – and have finely toothed margins. 

A large number of moth caterpillars feed on the leaves, as do the caterpillars of a few butterfly species.

Bitter fruit

The flowers of the blackthorn are followed by hard green fruits. These ripen and swell during the summer to become the familiar small, round, blackish plums called sloes. 

The black skin of each sloe is coated with a dusty bloom that gives it a blue/grey tone. A single round stone is embedded within the greenish/yellow flesh.

Sloes are extremely sour but get slightly sweeter the longer they remain on the bow. They have a variety of uses and can be used to make wine and sloe gin. 

My sister used to collect them to make sloe gin which, she used to say, beat regular gin for punch and taste. 

She’d bury it in the ground until it was ready to drink (perhaps to keep it safe from temptation) but most people just keep it in a cool, dark place until it’s ready for consumption. I never got to taste my sister’s gin but I am lucky to be supplied with a bottle of this pale pink liquid every year by a beloved cousin. I can assure you that its unique taste is highly addictive! 

Making sloe gin and wine from these bitter fruits is not a recent phenomenon; there are many records of it being utilised in this way in early Ireland. 

It is also used to make a liquor in France (épine), Spain (pacharan) and Italy (bargnolino) while sloe wine was traditionally made in many European countries.

Folklore

Not surprisingly, with its prickly thorns, dark wood and bitter fruit, the blackthorn was regarded as a symbol of fierceness and strength. Its dense wood was prized for use as a blackthorn stick, known as a ‘shillelagh’. Irish folk belief had it that such a stick provided protection against harm. It was a good thing to carry as a defence against the fairies. Many stories feature a blackthorn stick being used in this way. In one, a friar was able to drive out evil spirits by belting the unfortunate ‘madman’ with a blackthorn stick. 

Blackthorn was classified in early Irish law as one of the ‘lower divisions of the wood’ and it was protected by a series of fines in recognition of its value. It was also said to be protected by fierce mythical creatures called ‘lunantishees’. These would punish anyone who tries to cut a blackthorn stick on the 1st of May or the 1st of November, both Celtic festivals. 

Its fierce reputation was softened by the glory of its blossom, which was used by poets in Ireland to symbolise female beauty.  ‘My love is like the flower on the dark blackthorn’ presumably referring to the fairness of the loved one’s skin against her black hair. 

Blackthorn also features regularly in Irish myth and usually in the context of war and conflict. It also appears in connections with fierce animals in these tales. It was associated with witches, and many stories tell of strange women using blackthorn for a variety of uses. If a woman had no one to vouch for her in ancient Ireland, she had to clear her name in a bizarre ceremony. This involved rubbing her tongue on a red-hot metal axe which had been heated in a fire of blackthorn wood. 

Blackthorn sticks were used in the widespread faction fights of the nineteenth century. These stout shillelaghs were commonly carried by farmers to control animals and as an aid in rough boggy country. I still have my father’s blackthorn stick and it has proved useful as a defence against agressive dogs when out walking. I have yet to encounter the fairies but I’m armed and ready should one appear!

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