I’ll admit I am a little overdue with this one, but 2015 has been one of the latest I can recall for blackthorn blossom (the flowers of Prunus spinosa). In a normal year there could be a clear month between the single white flowers of blackthorn falling and the appearance of hawthorn blossom (lovingly referred to as ‘may’), but this spring the gap has amounted to days rather than weeks.
Unlike hawthorn, where leaves emerge first, blackthorn blooms on dark, naked stems. The term ‘blackthorn winter’ warns farmers and gardeners of the danger in considering the blossom to mark the beginning of summer, as damaging frosts may well coincide or follow. Never has that been truer than this year, when the temperature during most nights in April has hovered perilously close to freezing.
Something about the profusion and brilliance of blackthorn blossom, especially set against a clear blue sky, makes this native shrub particularly special in the pantheon of British wildflowers. I spent many peaceful moments photographing the windswept bushes on the coast between Looe and Polperro two weeks ago when the blossom was at its zenith. The buds form deep into the shrub, along thorny, lichen encrusted branches, eventually coating the whole bush with a frosting of flowers. A plentiful display bodes well for the crop of sloes that will follow, ready to be harvested after the first frosts of autumn. Once a countryman’s tipple, sloe gin has now become a mass market drink, although nothing tastes quite as good as a homemade infusion.
Taking on an unassuming mantle of green throughout the summer (the small leaves were once used ‘unofficially’ to bulk up expensive imported tea), blackthorn continues to play its part in nature’s grand plan by providing shelter for nesting birds and food for the caterpillars of many moth species. Blackthorn wood is prized for burning slowly and without smoke, as well as making excellent walking sticks. Attractive, hardy, tolerant and useful to man and beast, Prunus spinosa is the very backbone of a good country hedge and at the heart of our countryside. It deserves our respect and admiration.