Blackthorn (Prunus spinosa) is the earliest of our native flowering trees. In late February it is very distinctive: masses of creamy white blossom on bare black branches. Now, in April, the small nondescript leaves are opening and the plant becomes just one of the many spiny and spiked elements in our hedgerows. In the autumn, blackthorn is once again easily identified by the blue-black fruits we call sloes.
Blackthorn fruits prolifically; the sloes are very bitter but become more palatable after the first frost. Neolithic peoples dried them to sweeten them and archeologists have found straw lined pits full of sloe-stones, which suggests a method of preservation we no longer understand.
The blue part of a sloe’s blue-black colour is a bloom of yeast; sloes will ferment on the tree and intoxicate the birds that eat them. While there is no proof, it is hard to believe that neolithic people didn’t make sloe wine.
The tree’s thorns, hardened in urine or in a chimney, were used as pins, skewers and awls.
Blackthorn wood is tough and resilient and takes a fine polish. It makes excellent tool handles (the earliest examples we have date from the Roman period) but has been used to make blunt instruments, cudgels, knobkerries, shillelaghs, for a lot longer than that. With judicious pruning and a little patience, blackthorn will produce a thick knobbly stick with a lump on the end.
Black Rod’s black rod is supposedly a blackthorn stick.
Pictures: Google Images