The blackthorn has a long and often sinister history, associated with witchcraft and murder, but it is also associated with the concept of the cycle of life and death and protection not to mention its practical physical uses. Prunus spinosa. Deciduous. Family Rosaceae (the large rose family).
The blackthorn is more of a shrub than a tree, and grows in dense, impenetrable thickets, often a nesting site for birds. It frequently grows alongside the hawthorn. It is covered with long sharp thorns, has tough very dark bark , white, red-tipped flowers, and small oval leaves. It flowers abundantly in early spring, before it puts forth leaves, and this makes it instantly recognisable in hedgerows in February and March. It is thought to have been the ancestor of all modern plums including the cultivated varieties, bullaces, damsons and greengages. The fruit of the blackthorn bush are deep purple berries covered in a bluish bloom, known as sloes. They have a large stone in the middle and are extremely unpalatable as they are very astringent and acrid to taste and drying to the mouth. However they can be used to make jam and flavour the famous sloe gin. The juice from the berries was also used as a red dye and as ink. The berries are traditionally picked after the first frost (October/November) as this mellows the flavour and bursts the cells in the fruit allowing better extraction of the juice. HEALING The berries are a good astringent and can be used to stop bleeding, both internally and externally. The leaves can be boiled into a decoction and gargled as a treatment for laryngitis and tonsillitis or used as a soothing eye wash. It is also diaphoretic, promoting expulsion of toxins from the skin. The berries are excellent for cleansing the blood and stimulating metabolism and as a tonic. An infusion of flowers (approx 1 rounded tablespoon) can be used as a tea (1 cup daily for 3 days) for aperient, diuretic and mild tonic effect. Oddly whilst the flowers act as a mild laxative the berries have a mild anti- Diarrhoea effect. A decoction of the flowers can be used to soothe even very sensitive skin. The bark is mildly anti spasmodic and sedative. Culpeper recommends a distillation of the flowers as a certain cure for all “gnawings in the stomach, the sides and bowels.” Internally taken blackthorn medicine should be taken on an empty stomach for best effect. FOLKLORE AND HISTORY The Blackthorn is often regarded as sinister, associated with darkness, winter, the waning or dark moon. A particularly cold spring is referred to as ‘a blackthorn winter’. The devil was said to prick the fingers of his followers with blackthorn to seal their pact. It is considered the opposite of the benign hawthorn (which is also known as Whitethorn) with which it so frequently grows. Places where both grow together are considered particularly magical, and both were traditionally used to decorate a maypole. The two trees are of the same family.The blackthorns spines are extremely hard and cause much bleeding, with the wound frequently becoming septic. They were frequently used as pins to pierce poppetts by English witches and became known as the ‘pin of slumber’. The shrub was denounced as a witches tool by the church and therefore the wood of the blackthorn was used for the pyres of wiches and heretics. They were also placed under horses saddles,by the riders enemies, causing the horse to throw its rider when the spines pieced the horses flesh, causing injury or death to the unfortunate rider. The blackthorn is also seen as protective however and representative of the endless cycle of life and death. For all its deadly associations the blossoms were used in ancient fertility rites as well as being hung in the bedchamber of a bride on her wedding night. It provides blossom whilst there is still snow on the ground and much else still seems dead from its winter sleep, its dense branches protect the years new chicks from predation and in their adulthood provides them with food when many other species of plant have lost their berries. It is a thicket of these trees that protects sleeping beauty in her castle, and witches in northern England would carve the symbol for thorn on on a blackthorn staff for protection. The tree itself is said to be protected. It is considered a fairy tree and is protected by the Lunantishee, a type of fairy that inhabits it. They will not allow a mortal to cut blackthorn on May 11th or Nov 11th (said to have been the original dates of Beltane (may day) and Samhain (all Hallows eve) before the calendar was changed. Great misfortune will befall anyone who may succeed. Like elder trees, witches are said to be able to disguise themselves as a blackthorn. Blackthorn wood is the traditional wood of the Irish shilleagh (staff/fighting stick) and is also used to make walking sticks, due to its durability and beautiful rich colour when polished. It has long been favoured by farmers along with Hawthorn as a hedging shrub. The Blackthorn is also known as Crataegus Tomentosa, Mother of the woods, Dark mother of the Woods, Pear Hawthorn, Um Tree, Wishing Thorn, Snag and Spiny Plum In the Ogham alphabet it is known as Straif and represented by this symbol.Its devinatory meaning is “Magic is everywhere” Runic representation PRACTICAL INSTRUCTIONS The following spell is a protection spell for when a particular individual has ill intent towards you. WARNING: It MUST NOT be carried out with the intent to cause harm to the the person in question or for revenge but for justice and to reflect back to the person their own ill intent, to prevent it from harming you. Take a candle, black for preference (symbolic of protection) and carve it to suggest a basic human shape, with the wick at the head. Name the figure by carving the name of the person who wishes to harm you onto the candle (use your Athame if you have one).Take three thorns from the blackthorn and push them into the body, one in the forehead, one in the heart and one in the abdomen, saying as you do so (once for each thorn): “Evil return to the one who sent thee, for me and mine are now set free. No hurt nor harm can enter here, for my life and way are now made clear.” light the candle and let it burn down completely. Sloe Gin Use 2lbs of sloes per litre of gin. Pick them in autumn (Oct/Nov) once they have developed the characteristic bloom. If you gather them before the first hard frost you can put them in the freezer overnight for the same effect. It is easier to find them if you note the location of the bushes in Feb/March when they are easily spotted from a distance due to their prolific flowering. Cut or prick the sloes with a fork to enable the juice to get out, how thoroughly you do this will affect the final flavour of your gin. Add 250g of brown sugar or up to 450g if you prefer it sweeter. If you are not sure, start low as you can always add more sugar later. Put into a demijohn in a cool dark place (or use a dark demijohn, the light will fade the colour) shaking every other day. Strain it after this time through double layered muslin and bottle. Leave for 1 year to mature if you can wait that long. For a less fiddly method for alcoholics, buy a litre bottle of gin and drink half of it. Top up with 150g of sugar and then fill with pricked sloes until the bottle is almost full again. Again shake every other day for a couple of months. and leave for as long as your willpower lasts to mature. It can be drunk after the first two months of shaking but will be better if matured. Provided you do not crush your sloes you should not need to strain this recipe. Sloe Tonic syrup Use 500g of pricked sloes and 350g of sugar, honey or a mixture of the two. Add enough water to dissolve the sugar and prevent the mixture from burning. Simmer until the sloes break down, leave to cool and strain through muslin. Bottle and take a spoonful on an empty stomach twice a day to feel the benefit. Take every two hours from the onset of cold or flu. Bark decoction For sedative properties, nervous twitches and whooping cough. Gather the bark from young branches in autumn.Chop very finely and use two tablespoons per pint of water. Bring to the boil and simmer for a few minutes. Leave to cool and steep for several hours. Take 1 tablepoon as required on an empty stomach.