Blackthorn (Prunus spinosa)

Blackthorn (Prunus spinosa)

Blackthorn is a deciduous shrub that has long been popular in hedgerows because of its thorns .The beautiful white blossom tends to appear early in the year before the leaves, often in a very cold period following a false spring. These cold snaps are widely known as ‘blackthorn winters’. Blackthorn is related to the plums. The bitter fruits it produces are known as sloes, and are used to make sloe gin . They are bluish-black in colour and often have a whitish bloom. The flesh is green and there is a single stone inside .

Habitat

Typical habitats include hedgerows, woodlands, scrub, cliff slopes and screes. On shingle beaches a prostrate form of blackthorn may occur . This shrub can tolerate a wide range of soil types, but cannot survive in deep shade .

Blackthorn is a large, sprawling, deciduous shrub that suckers readily and produces a very effective spiny hedge. It has traditionally been used with hawthorn as the main components of a mixed hedgerow.

The bark is black with long, quite vicious spines and the small leaves are serrated and dull green in colour and measure from 2 to 4 cm in length. The leaves provide food for the larvae of Black and Brown Hairstreak butterflies. The tree is also the food plant for the caterpillars of the following moths - March, Common Emerald, Little Emerald, Mottle Pug, Feathered Thorn, Orange, Scalloped Hazel, Scalloped Oak, Swallowtailed, Brimstone, August Thorn, Early Thorn, Pale Brindled Beauty, Blue Bordered Carpet, Broken Barred Carpet, November, Pale November, Winter, Sloe Pug, Green Pug, Sharp Angled Peacock and The Magpie. In fact, Blackthorn supports around 153 species of wildlife.

Blackthorn is very valuable to birds as a nesting site. Blackbird, song thrush, finches, common whitethroat and wood pigeon are among the more common users.

The beautiful white blossom tends to appear early in the year before the leaves. The single, white flowers are among the first to be seen in hedgerows from late February to early March and their appearance often seems to coincide with a period of bad weather, the so-called 'blackthorn winter'.

These 'heralds of spring' attract early insects to pollinate them. The flowers are pollinated by a range of insects. The flowers produce nectar for bumblebees and early-flying Small Tortoiseshell butterflies.
 Blackthorn flowers on 29th nov 2006 DSCF8472

The bitter fruits it produces are round blue-black berries known as sloes, and are used to make sloe gin and a damson-like (but incredibly bitter!) flavour. They are bluish-black in colour and often have a whitish powdery bloom. The flesh is green and there is a single stone inside. Fruit diameter: 10-15 mm

In addition to flavouring gin, sloes are used in jellies, conserves and syrups and were made to make sloe wine, an alternative to port. They have also been put to various uses in folk-medicine. The flowers are edible and the leaves have been dried and used as a substitute for tea. Furthermore, dyes have been obtained form the fruits, leaves and bark. The wood of blackthorn is extremely hard and is highly valued for making walking sticks as it shows interesting patterns and knot-holes.


The sharp thorns have been used for centuries as awls. Blackthorn is also the traditional wood used in wands for tribal medicine people and wise women etc. It is also used to make the traditional Irish shillelagh - cudgel - used in sports. The tree also makes good firewood, marquetry and walking sticks.

The dried juice of the berries makes gum acacia. The flowers and fruit make a good tonic for diarrhoea and other bowel problems. Sloe syrup has anti-rheumatic properties and can help fight flu. The plant is also good for nosebleeds, constipation and eye pain. Sloe berries were first used by herbalists for treating stomach problems and blood disorders. They are still used in wine, gin and vodka as flavouring. Sloes can also be made into a paste for whitening teeth and removing tartar. The berries taste better and not so bitter if harvested after a few frosts. Ancient folk used to bury the sloes in straw-lined pits for a few months to ripen them and make them sweeter. A Neolithic lake village in Glastonbury was found to have such a pit, full of sloe stones.

This thorny native plant has much folklore surrounding it. Also known as Snag.

It was believed that Christ's Crown of Thorns was made from Blackthorn. To bring Blackthorn blossom into the home meant a certain death would follow. In Herefordshire and Worcestershire, a wreath or globe of Blackthorn twigs would be scorched on a fire on New Year's morning and then burned in a wheatfield in the furrows and its ashes scattered over the wheat. Then a new globe or wreath would be made and hung in the farmhouse kitchen ready for next year. It was believed that this ritual would rid the field of the devil. In a similar vein, Blackthorn would be scorched and hung up with mistletoe for good luck.

Blackthorn in bloom is considered an emblem of life and death together as the flowers appear when the tree has no leaves, just black bark and thorns. It is considered wise not to grow three trees closely together. It is said that a Hawthorn will destroy any Blackthorn near it. On the Isle of Man it is believed that if the Blackthorn and the Hawthorn have many berries then the ensuing winter will be severe.

Kingdom Plantae
Phylum Anthophyta
Class Magnoliopsida
Order Rosales
Family Rosaceae
Genus Prunus

Size 
Leaf length: 2-4 cm (2)
Shrub height: 1-4 m (2)
Fruit diameter: 10-15 mm (2)


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