Wednesday Weed – Blackthorn

Every Wednesday, I hope to find a new ‘weed’ to investigate. My only criterion will be that I will not have deliberately planted the subject of our inquiry. Who knows what we will find…..

Blackthorn (Prunus spinosa) on Hampstead Heath on Saturday

Blackthorn (Prunus spinosa) on Hampstead Heath on Saturday

Dear Readers, what a pleasure it is to see the blackthorn in full flower. The English name of the plant describes it well for anyone uncertain what it looks like – the twigs and branches are black or dark grey, and the plant has thorny side shoots. Each of the flowers has many long, elegant stamens which give the blossom a speckled appearance. Such a mass of flowers is a boon for early insects of all kinds, from hoverflies to honeybees. In some traditions, the signal for the start of Imbolc, the time of Celtic  spring rituals, was the blooming of the blackthorn.

IMG_5745I must confess to a personal attachment to this plant. In its other incarnation as the sloe, blackthorn forms the basis of one of my favourite tipples, sloe gin. My father worked for many years as a distiller for Gordon’s Gin. In those days, the recipe for the gin was a closely guarded secret (the details were held in a locked safe), and only a few people knew how to make up the concentrated flavour that would be used to create the spirit. As a result my father, who left school at fourteen, ended up flying all over the world, working in distilleries in Spain, Jamaica, and in the middle of a jungle in Venezuela. He had many adventures, including being confined to quarters during a State of Emergency in Jamaica, being knocked over by an earthquake in Venezuela, and flying first class with Peter Wyngarde, the diminutive mahogany-toned star of the TV show Jason King. I credit my dad with imbuing me with a love of travel, and the belief that it was possible to  have an interesting and fulfilling life regardless of where you start.

By Allan warren - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9982286

Peter Wyngarde (Photo One – credit below)

And what has all this to do with blackthorn, I hear you plead? Well, Gordons made a limited number of bottles of sloe gin, which, heavily diluted with lemonade, was one of my first introductions to the delights of alcohol. I still love a glass at Christmas today (though minus the lemonade). It is possible to make the drink at home, though the process involves gathering basketfuls of the astringent purple-blue fruits, and individually pricking every one to allow the juices to colour and flavour the gin that you pour all over them. At Gordon’s, they had a special machine for pricking the sloes, which I believe were harvested in Scotland. And a very fine drink it was too.

The juice from the berries has also been used as a dye – apparently it initially turns cloth a reddish colour, but after several washings this turns to a permanent pale blue.

CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=337699

Sloes! (Photo Two – see photo credits below)

Humans are not the only creatures with a taste for blackthorn, however. It is a recommended source of food for the caterpillars of the rare Black and Brown Hairstreak butterflies, as well as numerous moths.

CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=211262

Black hairstreak (Satyrium pruni) (Photo Three – credit below)

By Hectonichus - Own work, CC0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=12471724

Brown hairstreak (Thecla betulae) (Photo Four – see credit below)

The eggs of the brown hairstreak are laid directly onto the stems of the blackthorn, and it’s well worth having a look to see if you can see any next time you are passing by a bush. They are quite distinctive, though at a distance you might mistake them for lichen, or bird droppings. Once the caterpillars emerge, they are extremely well camouflaged and feed only at night.

By Gilles San Martin - Flickr: Thecla betulae egg, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15753504

Egg of the butterfly Thecla betulae on a Prunus spinosa twig (Photo Five – credit below)

And for your delectation, here are some of the other insects whose larvae may be found feeding on blackthorn:

By jean-pierre Hamon - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=524340

The small emperor moth (Saturnia pavonia) (Photo Six – see credit below)

By ©entomart, Attribution, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=294708

Brimstone moth (Ophithograptis luteolata) (Photo Seven – see credit below)

By Donald Hobern - originally posted to Flickr as Esperia oliviella, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5715537

The Concealer Moth (Dasycera oliviella) whose caterpillar, unusually, eats dead blackthorn wood (Photo Eight – see credit below)

As so many creatures depend upon it, it is a good thing that blackthorn has been used as a cattle-proof hedge since at least medieval times. In Flora Britannica, Richard Mabey describes how crossing the blackthorn with the cultivated plum tree can produce ‘thorns more than two inches long and tough enough to penetrate a tractor tyre’, so I can well see how even the most ambitious cow would admit defeat.

The wood is described by Cobbett as being ‘precisely the colour of the Horse Chestnut fruit and, as smooth and bright, needs no polish’. Blackthorn wood has been used as a material for walking sticks, and was traditionally the wood used for Irish shillelaghs (clubs), because it was less prone to cracking than other materials. The wood was seasoned with lard and put up a chimney to season, which gave it its black colour. The normal weight of the stick was about two pounds, but a ‘seasoned club’ had the hitting end filled with molten lead. You would not want to attempt to mug someone carrying one of these sticks, for sure.

By Samuraiantiqueworld - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=12311379

Some very fine shillelagh (Photo Nine – credit below)

Although it was a rather mild day when I spotted the blackthorn in blossom at the weekend, it is said that the plant may come into flower during a period of bitter winds following a ‘false spring’ – a ‘blackthorn winter’. As with many plants that bear berries, plentiful fruit was also believed to be indicative of a harsh winter to come:

‘many sloes, many cold toes’

IMG_5742The bark has been used as an intestinal tonic, and also for tanning – it turns leather a reddish-brown colour. It seems that this plant, which shares such a long history with us, has been useful to us at every turn.

I like to try to find some artistic or poetic reference to my Wednesday Weed, and this week I have found this portrait by the Pre-Raphaelite Marie Spartali Stillman, arguably the greatest woman artist of the movement. The painting shows the Madonna Pietra degli Scrovigni, a character from Dante’s poetry, and she is described as ‘a heartless lady dressed in green’. She is holding a branch of blackthorn, and I wonder what it symbolises: her wintery coldness, her thorny nature, or even her purity? Her enigmatic gaze is giving nothing away. I love that the painting features not only the blackthorn, but that the flowers in the Madonna’s hair are hellebores, and that ivy twines amongst the dried oak leaves above her head.

Madonna Pietra degli Scrovigni by Marie Spartali Stillman(1884). Currently in the Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool

Madonna Pietra degli Scrovigni by Marie Spartali Stillman(1884). Currently in the Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool (Photo Ten – credit below)

Spartali Stillman lived in England for her whole life, first in Clapham and then on the Isle of Wight. She studied under Ford Madox Brown (who is buried in ‘my’ cemetery) and was a model for Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Julia Margaret Cameron and Burne-Jones, amongst others. She also had an extensive sixty year career of her own, which included major exhibitions in both the UK and the US. Yet I had never heard of her. It seems that, as so often, a woman’s work is buried in obscurity while her male compatriots are famous names. I am  fortunate to live in an age where such works can be discovered with a simple internet search, uncovering a whole world of beauty that I can share here. It is easy to criticise the web, and yet it enables us to make connections that I cannot imagine would have been so easily made any other way. Who knew that a post on blackthorn would take me so far?

Credits

Richard Mabey’s ‘Flora Britannica’ and Sue Eland’s ‘Plant Lives‘ website are my constant companions for the Wednesday Weed.

Photo One – By Allan warren – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9982286

Photo Two – CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=337699

Photo Three – CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.

Photo Four – By Hectonichus – Own work, CC0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=12471724

Photo Five – By Gilles San Martin – Flickr: Thecla betulae egg, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15753504

Photo Six – By jean-pierre Hamon – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=524340

Photo Seven – By ©entomart, Attribution, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=294708

Photo Eight – By Donald Hobern – originally posted to Flickr as Esperia oliviella, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5715537

Photo Nine – By Samuraiantiqueworld – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=12311379

Photo Ten – By Marie Spartali Stillman – Source 2nd upload: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/484137028666579864/Source 1st upload: http://bertc.com/subone/g94/stillman.htm, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=607536

All other photos copyright Vivienne Palmer

10 thoughts on “Wednesday Weed – Blackthorn

  1. john wooldridge

    I loved this post although a know about Sloe gin, always do the odd bottle each year, and the Irish shillelaghs though never owned one the other points I had no idea of so thank m’dear. The picture is a lovely piece too m’dear.

    Reply
  2. Jill

    So interesting! I miss the fruiting of the blackthorn, teaching abroad, but manage to make crème de cassis with blackcurrants and vodka in the summer holidays. I pick currants in August and steep them in vodka until December, when I come home again and turn it into syrup. Google ‘Xanthe Clay’ and ‘crème de cassis’ to find the recipe, from years ago in the Daily Telegraph. Looking forward to seeing the blossom this weekend for the Easter hols. Thanks for keeping me in touch with home!

    Reply
    1. Bug Woman Post author

      I am a great fan of creme de cassis – we had kir royale at our wedding, so it’s another drink that I hold in great affection. Very nice over vanilla ice-cream as well. I hope you have a lovely Easter – we’re having a gorgeous Good Friday here in London weather-wise, but I fear it’s rain all the way from here!

      Reply
  3. squirrelbasket

    What a fascinating and informative post! I love the way blackthorn flowers so prettily before the leaves come along.
    And the gratuitous image of Jason King – can’t believe I used to fancy him at the time!
    I love the shillelagh and the pre-raphaelite image – I must look up the artist. I regret I had not heard of her, although I call myself a pre-raph fan!
    All the best for Easter 🙂

    Reply
    1. Bug Woman Post author

      Hi Squirrelbasket, you have a lovely Easter too! And yes, Jason King….still, I had a crush on Mr Spock from Star Trek, so at least you fancied someone human :-).

      Reply
  4. Anne Guy

    Great post about a wonderful hedgerow plant…I love to see the white blossom in our lane and nearby is a small woodland that is conserved by the butterfly conservation trust for the brown hairstreak. We visited last year at the peak time and try as we might could not find any eggs or butterflies sadly. Sloe gin very fine too. I visited Plymouth Gin distillery a couple of years ago and was fascinated by the range of “botanicals” they use in their products. Thanks for yet another informative post.

    Reply
    1. Bug Woman Post author

      My Dad was such a Gordon’s man that if he went into a pub that only sold Beefeater, he’d walk straight back out again. And heaven help the bartender who tried to sell him gin as Gordon’s when it wasn’t :-). The shame of it was that he was made redundant in his late 50’s when the company was taken over by Guinness (Diageo). He had such loyalty to the company, and was repaid so shoddily….

      Reply
  5. babogbeag

    Thank you for sharing such interesting information. Looking out from my fifth floor flat, I can see the lovely flowering of the blackthorn over the hills around my home. I am especially drawn to this plant as my mother (a Staffordshire lass) always insisted on telling me that it brought bad luck when taken into the home when I was a little child so despite its beauty I was not allowed to touch it. Whether this was a folk memory of the Celtic beliefs that it is a tree of ill omen or if its bad luck
    was due to Catholics being found out by taking the flowers into their homes to decorate their house altars to Mary at a time of English history when Catholics were persecuted, I don’t know.

    Reply
    1. Bug Woman Post author

      Very interesting, Bagogbeag! According to the Plant Lives website, blackthorn was considered unlucky because it was thought to have been part of the crown of thorns, and was also associated with death – it was believed that witches carried a wand of blackthorn to cause miscarriages (but then witches get a very bad press, I find). Apparently though, blackthorn was also once used to encourage crop fertility – the branches were dried in an oven, burnt in the fields and the ashes scattered over the wheat fields. I hadn’t heard the link to the Catholic persecution before, but it makes sense too. I love the way that plants, especially native ones, have such a long and layered history….

      Reply

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