One of the great treats of driving around England for the last couple of weeks has been the snowy clouds of blackthorn by the roadsides. This is Prunus spinosa, a viciously spiny relative of the cherry and with snowy white flowers in spring and blue fruits in the autumn.
It’s a staple component of traditional farm hedges, a great host for nesting birds, its leaves feed the caterpillars of many moths as well as the brown hairstreak butterfly, its fruits (called sloes) go to make sloe gin. The wood is also used to make the traditional Irish shillelagh. Blackthorn is also a traditional forecaster of a cold snap. Often we get a sharp frost as the blackthorn is in flower and this is known as a Blackthorn winter. It’s a valuable and versatile plant. I posted about it while I was here a couple of years ago (with the recipe for slow gin). But a reminder is surely welcome.
But, unlike hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna and C. oxycantha) with which it often grows in hedges and which has thrown many variants in red or pink or with double flowers, it never seems to vary – except in one respect.
Blackthorn flowers for quite a few weeks – but it’s not that individual plants flower for a long time. As I write some plants have dropped all their flowers while others are at their peak. For the plants flower in succession – a protection against them all being wiped out by a severe frost - and that’s what gives blackthorn its extended season.
The flowers have been incredibly prolific this year – and this means plenty of fruits for the sloe gin later in the season.