It can be found in our hedgerows and thickets, and is identifiable by its distinctive black, thorn-studded twigs and clouds of white blossom in spring. The small round fruits, the sloes, ripen slowly through the year and are sweetened by the first frosts. The sloe berry belongs to the same family as the damson and the plum.
The blackthorn appears frequently in history, myth and legend. In Ireland, November 11th is the day of the blackthorn sprites (‘lunantishees’), who guard the sacred blackthorn from being cut by humans.
Blackthorn is also closely associated with witchcraft – its thorns were used for pricking wax images for cursing. Witches were thought to carry rods of blackthorn, and when they were burned at the stake blackthorn was thrown on to the pyre.
The Usher of the House of Lords and the Order of the Garter is called Black Rod because he knocks on the door of the House of Parliament with a blackthorn rod. Some even say that Christ’s Crown of Thorns was made from blackthorn.
Believed to have magical properties, many consider the Blackthorn wood to be very strong and powerful, and so any weapon made from blackthorn should be used with great care.
Blackthorn makes a regular appearance in English fairytales too. One tells of a giant’s daughter fleeing with a prince, with the giant in pursuit. She felt her father’s breath on her back and said to the prince: ‘Put your hand quickly into the ear of the grey filly and throw behind you what you find there.’ It was the point of a thorn and as he threw it, a dense forest of blackthorns twenty miles long sprang up and the giant had to give up the chase.
In the tale of Sleeping Beauty, a hedge of blackthorn sprang up around the castle but opened to allow the prince to pass. In the tale of Rapunzel, the witch who has imprisoned her threw a suitor from the high tower. He fell onto a blackthorn and was blinded. He wandered for two years until Rapunzel, who had escaped from the tower, found him. Finding him blind, she wept and her tears fell onto his eyes which were instantly cured.