(Prunus spinosa) Blackthorn is the first of the hedgerow shrubs to come into bloom in the spring, the white flowers appearing, according to where in the country it is growing, any time between mid-March to mid-April. One would think it would be a welcome and auspicious plant, but it is a thoroughly unlucky one. Even its early blooming brings talk of a "blackthorn winter", but evidently not from those who believed it would bloom on old Christmas Eve (Folklore. vol 39; 1928). There are often some warm days at the end of March and beginning of April which are enough to bring it into flower, and they are nearly always followed by a cold spell, the Blackthorn Winter. "Beware the Blackthorn Winter", or "blackthorn hatch" as it is sometimes called (Clinch & Kershaw)), is a well-known admonitory saying. The north-east winds that seem to prevail in the spring, about the time the blackthorn is in flower, were known as "blackthorn winds". A blackthorn winter means a spoiled summer, they say in Somerset (Tongue. 1965). Sometimes, it seems, there is a second blackthorn winter, which is said to fall in the second week in May. This may be just coincidence, for the festivals of the Ice Saints (Mamertus, etc) fall then (Jones-Baker. 1974). Even when the sloes themselves appear, there is foreboding. Is it not said that:

Many haws, many sloes,

The more berries there are, the worse the coming winter is said to be, and the more sinister the result. Note the Devonshire rhyme:

Many nits [nuts]

Many pits;

Many slones,

Many groans (Choape).

The flowers are extremely unlucky things to bring indoors; if it comes to that, virtually any white flowers in the house being dire results. But more fuss seems to be made about the blackthorn than anything else. It is just as bad to wear it as a buttonhole. Sussex people looked on it as a death token (Latham); in Suffolk, too, they used to say that it would foretell the death of some member of the family (Gurdon). And in Somerset, it would mean you would hear of a death (Tongue. 1975). Of course, all this might possibly amount to preventive superstition - Vickery pointed out that a scratch from the fierce thorns could very well cause blood poisoning (Vickery. 1985). Against this is a Lincolnshire belief that is not quite a death token - at Alford, in that county, they used to say that blackthorn flowers indoors would result in the relatively lesser misfortune of a broken arm or leg (Gutch & Peacock). With all this ill-luck attached to the blackthorn, it seems almost logical that whitethorn, which is almost universally regarded as a good influence, should be thought the more dominant. If the two grow near each other, it would be the whitethorn that would destroy the blackthorn, so it used to be said (Wiltshire). It was once the custom in some parts to put May morning garlands of various plants over girls' doors. Each plant conveyed a message - the opinion of the villagers about any girl's behaviour was made explicit. Whitethorn was the most complimentary, but blackthorn, according to one authority (Tynan & Maitland) was reserved for a shrew (nettle was the worst of insults). But of course, blackthorn is a fairy tree, under the protection of a special band of them, said by Irish people to guard them specially on 11 November, which is Samhain old style, and 11 May, Beltane O S. They would let no-one cut a stick from it on those days. If anyone tried to, then he would be bound to suffer misfortune (Wentz). An extension of the fairy belief in Ireland is that they are supposed to blight the sloes at Samhain, just as the devil spits on blackberries at some time usually a little before that. So the sloe that was put in a County Roscommon Hallowe'en cake was the last eatable sloe of the year; the recipient of that was reckoned to be the longest liver (Byrne), by some convoluted reasoning.

The thorns were the ones used to stick into wax images made for black magic, and blackthorn wood was often used for a witch's walking stick (Wiltshire). This "black rod" carried by witches caused miscarriages, and when Major Weir was burned in Edinburgh in 1670, a blackthorn staff was burned with him as the chief instrument of his sorceries (Graves). The Lay of Runzifal makes a blackthorn shoot out of the bodies of slain heathens (and a white flower from fallen Christians) (Dyer. 1889) - the latter being logically the whitethorn, presumably. A blackthorn stake is to be used to impale a vampire (Kemp); this is a widespread belief in the Balkans. From the same area comes the corollary - the tree itself should never be injured or cut down (Kemp). It seems to have been buried with corpses in Ireland (O Suilleabhain). In Normandy, they used to say that fleas could be acquired by the ill-wishing of a witch. The only way to break the spell was to go down to the river before sunrise, and to beat one's shirt for an hour with a branch of blackthorn (W B Johnson), an action that seems to suggest that a blackthorn stick is a good thing after all. So it was in Slav folklore - it was a protection, and bits of the plant were carried sewn into the clothing (Lea). In Irish folklore, too, a blackthorn stick was used to overcome evil spirits (O Suillea-bhain); this is the traditional knobbly walking stick known as the shillelagh (Hart), although it is claimed that the shillelagh was always an oak cudgel (Sheehy & Mott). Gypsy men often carry a blackthorn walking stick as a protection against any kind of danger; it is a traditional charm against ill-wishers (Boase), and, apparently, against mildew in a wheat crop. Part of a blackthorn branch would be burned in a large fire in the field, and the remainder hung up in the house (Drury. 1992). Blackthorn is the accepted timber with which Irish tinkers fight at fairs. Robert Graves said that not for nothing was it called bellicum in Latin. This is an extremely tough wood, tough enough to make flail swingels from, holly being equally tough, and equally popular for the job (the handles were usually made of ash).

The Crown of Thorns was sometimes said to have been made from the blackthorn (Graves). A Worcestershire New Year morning custom used to be to make a blackthorn crown, which was baked in an oven until calcined. This ash was then taken to a cornfield and scattered, to ensure a plentiful crop. In Herefordshire, scorched blackthorn was mixed with mistletoe as a Christmas decoration to bring good luck (R L Brown). Like the Glastonbury Thorn, blackthorn was said to bloom at midnight on old Christmas Eve (M Baker. 1980).

It is still known as the wishing thorn, as it is the tree from which wishing rods were cut (Philpot). This is from Germany, but there is a similar idea that was current in Wales. Ffynon Saethan (Caernarvonshire) was visited (on Easter Monday?), and blackthorn points thrown into the water. If they floated, the lover was faithful, but if they sank, matters were rather more doubtful. Similarly, at the Silver Well, Llanbe-thion, in Glamorgan - if the blackthorn floated, the lover was faithful; if it whirled round, he had a cheerful disposition; if it sank a little, he was stubborn, and if it sank out of sight, he was unfaithful. If a number of thorn points slipped into the well from the visitor's hand, then it showed that the lover was a great flirt, and so thoroughly unreliable (F Jones).

Getting rid of warts by rubbing a snail on them and then impaling it on a blackthorn used to be common practice; or, from East Anglia, you could rub the wart with a green sloe, and then throw the slow over your left shoulder (Glyde). They are both transference charms; cattle doctors in Worcestershire used to cure footrot by cutting a sod of turf from the spot on which the animal was seen to tread with its bad foot, and then to hang the turf on a blackthorn. As the sod dried out, so would the hoof heal (Drury. 1985). To rise above the level of charms, there were some quite genuine folk remedies involving sloes - in North Wales they were used for a cough cure (Friend. 1883); so they were in the Highlands, too, for sloe jelly was reckoned the best cure for relaxed throat (Grant), while the juice of boiled sloes was an East Anglian gargle for a sore throat (V G Hatfield. 1994). Sucking a sloe is said to cure gumboils (Addison & Hillhouse). And a gypsy remedy for bronchitis involves peeling the bark, boiling it in a saucepan of water, and then allowing it to cool. Add sugar, and then drink it when needed (Page. 1978). In Sussex, the inner bark is scraped off and made into a tea to be taken for various ailments. Equally varied and unspecified are the disorders for which sloe wine used to be taken in Northamptonshire (Friend. 1883). Blackthorn leaves were used in Ireland as an indigestion remedy, or to cure "summer fever" (O Suilleabhain), while Thornton said that ague could be cured sometimes with the powdered bark. He also reckoned that an infusion of a handful of the flowers "is a safe and easy purge", but the Welsh belief that if a person ate the first three blackthorn blossoms he saw, he would not have heartburn all through the year (Trevelyan), can only be classed as superstition, not even a charm.

Sloes will give a slate-blue dye with no mordant, and sloe juice is indelible, as careless handling during the making of sloe gin will prove! Juice squeezed out of the unripe fruit was sold at one time under the trade name German Acacia, and used to mark linen - an ideal laundry marking, in fact. Sloe gin is the best-known use of the fruit, but they have been used in a mixture of various ingredients that was sold as choice old port! (Hulme). The leaves have been used as an adulterant of tea, notoriously so, in fact, in Victorian times ('sloe poison', Punch was moved to call tea in the 1870's). C P Johnson said that at one time four million pounds of blackthorn leaves were packaged up in a fraudulent attempt to sell them off as genuine China tea! They were also an Irish substitute for tobacco (O Suilleabhain). Sloes were used for fevers at one time in the Highlands, and the flowers as a laxative (Beith). Can that be feasible? Blackthorn thorns, in infusion, is an Irish cure for diarrhoea (Buckley). Tusser recommended the berries for veterinary use:

Keepe sloes upon bow,

For flixe of thy cow.

Later in his five hundred points, he gave instructions to:

"seeith water and plump therein plenty of sloes,

Mix chalke that is dried in powder with thoes,

Which so, if ye give, with the water and chalke,

Thou makest the laxe fro thy cow away walke".

Norfolk pig-farmers used to hang the afterbirth on a blackthorn tree after a sow had farrowed, "so that the pigs do well" (Norfolk FWI).

The thorns have been used as fish-hooks - in fact they survived in Wales until fairly recent times. They were put in an oven for some days to harden the points, and were fitted to hand-lines or long-lines that were particularly effective for catching flatfish.

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