Blackthorn winter

There’s a popular belief (in rural areas, at least – I doubt town or city dwellers notice it!) that the blooming of the blackthorn in March and early April heralds a cold spell called the “blackthorn winter”. March is often cold, so I suspect it’s a coincidence that is noticed when it happens and ignored otherwise! It’s certainly been cold here for the past few days, but the emerging signs of spring in hedgerow and field are becoming more evident – globular blossom buds and a smattering of green shoots, primroses, celandines, daisies and the first blooms of purple vetch, red campion and violet.

Blackthorn (sloe, Prunus spinosa) is so-called because it has dark twigs and the blossom usually (but not inevitably) appears before the leaves. It is sometimes confused with bullace (wild damson, Prunus domestica subsp. insititia var. nigra) which has more frothy flowers and congested twigs, rather than the stiff spiny ones of blackthorn. Hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna) is also called whitethorn or may. The latter name comes from its flowering time, and the former presumably because in full flower, the congested masses of blossom can entirely hide the twigs and leaves. The old saying “ne’er cast a clout till may be out” is believed to refer to the tree, not the month – though these days the weather is so changeable it’s often difficult to know when to put away the winter woollies and get out the summer dresses!

Hawthorn twigs are already bedecked with tiny green sprigs – these are sometimes called “bread and cheese” though I have no idea why. Perhaps after a dire winter diet, peasants enjoyed the prospect of fresh greens, but they taste rather bitter and grassy to me…