‘The blackthorn full of spines—but how the child delights in its fruit.’
— ‘Cad Goddeu’, 14th-century Welsh poem
The blackthorn tree fascinates because of its inherent duality. On one hand, a folkloric symbol for strength, overcoming adversity, purification, and protection, it is also considered a trickster, bad luck if crossed, and easily used as a weapon in the wrong hands. Blackthorn has, perhaps, the most sinister reputation in Celtic tree lore.
The blackthorn holds a place of importance in many folklore traditions; however in the Irish tradition the blackthorn is actually codified into the in the early medieval alphabet Ogham, which was used to write the early Irish language. ‘Straif’ is the 14th letter of the Ogham alphabet, it means ‘blackthorn’. This ancient alphabet is rather more complicated than straight translation, but essentially ᚎ = straif = blackthorn. It is designated one of the Eight Chieftain Trees on the Ogham Tract and is said to be the ‘Increaser of Secrets’. ‘Straif’ is thought to be the origin of the word ‘strife’.
Straif means ‘sulphur’, a substance with a long history of associations with the underworld, including the Christian hell. It is also highly important in the study of alchemy. Other translations hold that the name of the blackthorn fruit, sloe, and the word ‘slay’ are connected. These all give excellent clues to the magical and spiritual significance of straif, the blackthorn. The blackthorn features in many Irish sagas, often as a metaphor for the destructive abilities of warriors, or for death itself. Sometimes it appears as a symbol of transformative vision of death as well and even of sacrifice. […] As an ogham, straif the blackthorn reminds us that magic is the nature of the universe and that wonders are the normal reality of the world. Accepting the darkness is the first step to enlightenment, giving balance and clarity to see and acknowledge our pains and difficulties, paradoxically leading us back into the light. Through challenges we are born anew. (Forest 160, 165)
Blackthorn represents transformation, but through the hardening of strife. “Its association with death, battles, and transformation can be seen in the three colours that are found in it, red (blood), white (spirit), and black (death). These correspond with the red sap, the white of the flowers, and the black bark. These associate blackthorn with the Triple Goddess, and the tree is thus especially sacred to the Irish goddess the Morrígan ‘the Great Queen’ who oversees matters of war, death, and sexuality.” (Forest 160) Blackthorn is called the ‘Dark Mother of the Woods’. The tree is sacred to the third phase of the Triple Goddess, the Crone, known in different guises as Morrígan or Caillech or Beira, ‘Goddess of Winter’—all associations with the waning of life, the waning year, and the waning moon. She is depicted at times carrying a staff of blackthorn wood and often accompanied by her pathfinder crow or raven.
Blackthorn: The Tree
The blackthorn is typically a crooked little tree or shrub, with many thorny angular branches and black or dark brown knobbly twigs. “Blackthorn grows densely in hedgerows, woods, and thickets throughout Britain, most often in the company of the gentler hawthorn. It is rarely found in the north of Scotland. It is thickly invested with strong thorns, which are long sharp spines. These form in place of twigs and can give painful stabs and scratches which usually turn septic.” (Paterson 79) Early to blossom, blackthorn trees have clouds of snow-white flowers in early spring. Their tiny five-petalled flowers are unusual in that they open very early in spring, late February to March, before the leaves, which is backwards for most flowering behaviour. The result is a very striking picture of white starry flowers starkly framed by bare black bark.
When young, blackthorns are spiny and densely branched, looking more like a shrub than a tree. Mature trees can grow to a height of around 6-7m (20-22ft) and live for up to 100 years. In practical terms, blackthorn was the original barbed wire, used by farmers to make a thick hedge that held in the cattle. This is one of the reasons it is such a prolific citizen of the hedgerow.
In further manifestation of its dual nature, the blackthorn is a hermaphrodite, meaning both male and female reproductive parts are found in one flower. After pollination by insects, the flowers develop into blue-black fruits measuring 1cm across—these are the sloes you can gather for your sloe gin recipes below. Freshly picked sloes are inedible because of their dry acrid taste and are mainly used as a ‘bitter’ in drinks. By September the hedgerows are filled with them, and they add to the autumn colours of the hedgerow and field.
Blackthorn is an important haven for wildlife, many birds will nest in its protective thorns, including especially the now ecologically threatened nightingale. The protection the blackthorn bramble offers for vulnerable wildlife might be where its association with protection comes from.
Here is a time-lapse video from the Woodland Trust of a year in the life of a blackthorn tree:
The phrase ‘Blackthorn Winter’ has been used traditionally throughout many regions in the UK to refer to the tree’s habit of flowering just before a particularly cold snap.
The phenomenon was described by Surrey-born journalist William Cobbett in 1825:
‘It is a remarkable fact that there is always, that is every year of our lives, a spell of cold and angry weather just at the time this hardy little tree is in bloom. The country people call it the Black Thorn winter and thus it has been called, I dare say, by all the inhabitants of this island, from generation to generation, for a thousand years.’
— The Woodlands
Greatly admired though these flowers are, it is considered bad luck to bring these first flowers of spring indoors—and certainly never to church. The blackthorn was thought to have made up the crown of thorns put on Jesus’s head when he was crucified in Golgotha. One problem with this association is blackthorn trees aren’t exactly prolific in the middle eastern desert.
Blackthorn: The Myth
In Ireland, blackthorn wood was used to make traditional shillelaghs (clubs or cudgels). It’s also useful for walking sticks. But despite these practical uses, the hard wood developed a sinister reputation when it was reportedly used by witches to make their staffs and wands.
During the superstition and paranoia of the witch panic that raged throughout Britain in the early modern period, poor souls would be accused of using ‘black rods’ to curse their neighbours. Blackthorn wands with fixed thorns on their ends and carved blackthorn sticks called ‘black rods’ were purportedly used to cause miscarriages and harm. It’s interesting to note that the Lady Usher (or previously, Gentleman User) of the Black Rod opens parliament. History is certainly fickle with its associations.
In addition to the charge of wielding black rods of blackthorn, witches were said to have been pricked by the devil himself with blackthorn thorns on their fingers, and elsewhere, leaving them with a ‘witch’s mark’.
The associations between witches and blackthorn were so established that “it was reputedly one of the woods used to burn witches on their pyres. Such usage was meant to deliver a final insult to the victim.” (Paterson 81) The thorns of the blackthorn are indeed dangerous, however, with no need of the devil to assist in them. The scratches from the strong, long, sharp thorns often turn septic. The introduced bacterial infection can lead to what is known as ‘blackthorn arthritis’. It’s easy to see how ancient people came to believe the tree actively wished them harm. Over time, fears of a black witch moved into the realm of fairy tales. Sleeping Beauty pricks her finger and is held in a castle surrounded by thorns, the curse brought about by the black witch.
Blackthorn is also said to be sacred to the Irish god of death, Donn of Milesians. At one time it was used to curse and discipline; blackthorn’s testing qualities also control chaotic and chthonic forces, hence its association with death. There is a strong connection in Celtic lore between the underworld, the dead, and the faery races. In Irish, the word sidhe means ‘ancestor’, ‘faery’, and ‘hollow hill’, the latter referring to the burial mounds in which the faeries were said to dwell. Interestingly, these burial mounds also function as entry points to the underworld. Because of this connection, blackthorn is a popular wood for calling up the faery Wild Hunt, the faery raid of the horned god and his hounds to gather lost souls and bring them to the realm of the dead. Blackthorn is sacred to and the dwelling place of the leanan sidhe, the faery beings who are fierce lovers and highly protective of the tree. They will not allow any wood to be cut from it without permission, and never at the sacred faery times of Beltane and Samhain. (Forest 161)
Moon Fairy of the Blackthorn:
Lunantisidhe / Lunantishee
To fall asleep under a blackthorn tree is to welcome prophetic dreams from the faerie realm; but be careful, these visions always come with a thorn. Blackthorn has a double nature that is at once helpful and harmful. There is an Irish story that tells of a man who has all his corn stolen, then falls asleep under a blackthorn bush. In his dream, a voice tells him that the fairies have his corn and how to get it back. The farmer manages to retrieve his corn, but the faeries have their revenge, as the corn kills any livestock who eat it. “Given this ambiguous nature, blackthorn is often considered an unlucky tree. In Scotland, blackthorn is considered to be a ‘crossed’ or unlucky wood, in contrast to the bramble which was seen as blessed. The blackthorn was not regarded as completely bad however, as an old saying makes clear: ‘Better the bramble than the blackthorn / better the blackthorn than the devil.’” (Coitir 102)
Blackthorn is one of the triad of faerie trees: blackthorn, hawthorn, and rowan. The fairy who guards the blackthorn is known as the Lunantisidhe or Lunantishee—the moon fairy. You may harvest the leaves, branches, and thorns of the blackthorn if you first kindly ask permission and leave an offering for the Lunantisidhe. But never cut anything from a blackthorn on 11 May or 11 November (the old Julian calendar days of Beltane and Samhain) or beware the Lunantishee’s wrath. “Perhaps the ‘lunantishee’ mentioned here is the same as the Leannán Sídhe or ‘Fairy Lover’, a female spirit who seeks the love of men. Any man she has under her power wastes away with love for her unless he can find someone else to take his place but in return she provides great poetic inspiration. Indeed, the blackthorn was used by the Gaelic poets as a symbol of female beauty. Tá mo ghrá-sa mar bhláth na n-airne ar an draighneán donn — ‘My love is like the flower on the dark blackthorn’. i.e. fair of skin with jet black hair.” (Coitir 103-104)
Carrying a staff made from (properly requested) blackthorn could be carried at night to keep faerie mischief away. A blackthorn stick could be placed by the bed for the same purpose.
Blackthorn: The Seasons
The blackthorn is associated with the dark side of the year. The phases of the blackthorn are associated with three of the four Gaelic seasonal festivals: Samhain (1 October), Imbolc (1 February), Beltane (1 May) , but not Lughnasadh (1 August). Blackthorn is not a summer tree.
Imbolc is a Gaelic traditional festival marking the beginning of spring. It’s held on, or around, 1 February and is associated with the onset of the lambing season, the beginning of spring sowing, and the blooming of the blackthorn.
Beltane is the Gaelic May Day festival, held on 1 May. Here, the blackthorn is woven into the May Day Pole, or in some cases used for the May Day Pole itself. Blackthorn is usually thought of as a sister tree to the hawthorn, and it was sometimes used as a substitute for the hawthorn tree as a maypole during the May Day/Beltane celebrations. Blackthorn blossoms were also traditionally woven into the hawthorn crowns that topped the maypoles.
By tradition blackthorn was regarded as a sister of the hawthorn. Weaving together of blackthorn and hawthorn illustrates the darkness and the light represented by these sister trees. The customs attached to fertility celebrations used the qualities of both plants to great effect, particularly the erotic ones with which fertility was evoked. When blackthorn was used in the Mayday celebrations, it topped the maypole entwined in a hawthorn garland and was called the ‘Mother of Woods’. “Blackthorn wishing-wands were also used at this time for divination and obtaining desires. The heady fusion of Nature’s fertile energies is expressed by the erotic perfume of spring flowers and on this, the traditional wedding day, hedgerow flowers adored the bridal couples and were used to decorate the chambers in which they made love. (Paterson 85)
Samhain is the Gaelic festival celebrated from sunset 31 October to sunset 1 November, marking the end of the harvest season and the beginning of winter and the darker half of the year. Today, we associate Samhain with Halloween. Picking the sloes of the blackthorn after the first frost (be that in October or November) would be used to infuse the sloe gin to be enjoyed in the winter. (See recipes for boozy blackthorn delights below.) “At new year, when people gathered together to celebrate, crowns of blackthorn were made and ritually burned as firecharms, so their scattered ashes could fertilise the fields. Blackthorn crowns or garlands were also used to wassail the apple trees and when mistletoe was woven into the garlands they were hung up to bring luck in the coming year.” (Paterson 80)
From Sandra Kynes’s Plant Magic: A Year of Green Wisdom for Pagans & Wiccans:
In keeping with Irish tradition, and to appease any fairies or spirit attached to the blackthorn, avoid taking any cuttings on the current or previous dates for Beltane and Samhain. Instead, leave an offering for the Lunantishee at the base of the tree or in its branches. At other times, ask permission to collect leaves and small branches and thorns.
Place the thorns on your altar during spells for protection. Alternatively, place three thorns at each corner of your house as you say:
With these thorns that I know place; negativity, be banned from this space
Protected by the blackthorn tree; this spell be strong, so mote it be.
From Sandra Kynes’s Whispers from the Woods: The Lore & Magic of Trees:
Carefully gather a few thorns from the tree. Write the name of the person or situation from which you seek protection on a piece of paper and then wrap it around the thorns. Bury this in the ground—if possible near the tree from which the thorns were collected.
From Jacqueline Memory Paterson’s Tree Wisdom: The definitive guidebook to the myth, folklore, and healing power of Trees:
However, no matter how amenable we are in life, it seems we often find ourselves confronting people who regard us as their enemy, and sometimes such people won’t let go and throw nothing but negativity our way. To rid yourself of such a person, here is an ancient spell which uses the thorns of blackthorn:
Create a rough image of the ill-wishing person by simply carving a candle into a rough body shape. Do this in such a way that the wick is uncut and the candle will still light and burn evenly. Name this body shape as the person, carving the name upon it if you wish. Then take three blackthorn thorns, and push on into the image’s forehead, one into its heart area, and one into the abdomen. When the thorns are placed, light the candle-body, and as the flame meets each thorn repeat the following words:
Evil return to the one who sent thee,
For me and mine are now set free.
No hurt no harm can enter here,
For my life and way are now made clear.
Allow the candle to burn down completely, concentrating on your release from the person and seeing the ill-wishing return to the source. In performing this spell correct intent must be held, for we do not wish to practise thoughts of hatred, ect. i.e., in the same way as the person from whom we are being released, but only to be freed from them. The correct intent in this case is justice, not revenge. (Paterson 86-87)
Sloe Gin & Winter Sparkle Recipes
Sloe gin recipe from Difford’s Guide:
- Pick ripe sloe berries from the blackthorn bush (or buy at a farmers market) in October or November after the first frost (or see freezer recommendation below)
- Wash berries in a colander under running water. Discard any that look bruised or burst.
- British tradition dictates that the skin of each berry should be pricked at least six times with the thorn from the blackthorn bush; however freezing is a shortcut to accomplish the same task. If not pricking traditionally, freeze the berries for at least 24hrs to open fruit cells to allow better infusion in alcohol.
- Place frozen berries in a sterilised sealable bottling jar: 500g of berries for a 1.5l jar or 700g berries for a 2l jar.
- Cover berries with ‘Navy strength’ (at least 47%) London dry gin. 1 pint/50cl for 1.5l jar or 1.5 pints/70cl for 2l jar. *Use a decent gin. As Sipsmith says, “Remember that you’re not masking your gin with sloes. Instead, you’re complementing its complexity by adding an addition flavour dimension. You want a gin with character, and a strong juniper backbone, that can work elegantly alongside the sloes.”
- Do NOT, as many recipes dictate, add sugar at this stage. Sugar is not needed to extract flavour from the berries, the alcohol will do that.
- Seal jar and shake vigorously
- Leave to infuse in a dark place at room temperature for a least two months, shaking every few days.
- Strain through a fine sieve and muslin into a large sterile mixing bowl.
- Gradually add and stir in sugar syrup (made one part water to two parts caster sugar) to taste. You may want to adjust the strength and concentration of your sloe gin by adding more gin and/or distilled water at this stage.
- Bottle and leave to mature for between a month and seven years before drinking. This is something of a Christmas tipple and like Christmas pudding is best laid down and kept until at least the following Christmas
Winter Sloe & Cranberry Sparkle recipe by Eco-Enchantments:
Mix all together in a punch bowl:
- 1/2 bottle sloe gin
- 1/2 bottle plain gin
- 1 bottle Cava (sparkling white wine)
- 1 litre cranberry juice
- juice of 1 lemon
- sugar to taste
- 1 tin blackberries or black cherries, crushed
Sources and further reading…
Blamires, Stephen, Celtic Tree Mysteries: Practical Druid Magic & Divination, (Portland: Llewellyn Publications) 1997. Book.
Brown, P.W.F., ‘Notes on Names of the Thorn’, Folklore, 70:2, p416-418. 1959. Journal.
Coitir, Niall Mac, Ireland’s Trees: Myths, Legends & Folklore, (Wilton: The Collins Press) 2003. Book.
Forest, Danu, Celtic Tree Magic: Ogham Lore and Druid Mysteries, (Portland: Llewellyn Publications) 2014. Book.
Hopman, Ellen Evert, The Sacred Herbs of Samhain: Plants to Contact the Spirits of the Dead, (New York: Simon & Schuster) 2019. Book.
Kynes, Sandra, Plant Magic: A Year of Green Wisdom for Pagans & Wiccans, (Portland: Llewellyn Publications) 2017. Book.
— Whispers from the Woods: The Lore & Magic of Trees, (Portland: Llewellyn Publications) 2006. Book.
Paterson, Jacqueline Memory, Tree Wisdom: The definitive guidebook to the myth, folklore, and healing power of Trees, (New York: Harper Collins) 1996. Book
Schneidau, Lisa, Botanical Folk Tales of Britain and Ireland, (Stroud: The History Press) 2018. Book.
— ‘Blackthorn, Hawthorn, and Rowan’, Folklore Thursday, 28 March 2019, https://folklorethursday.com/folklife/the-fairy-trees-blackthorn-hawthorn-and-rowan/
Sinn, Shanon, ‘Straif (Blackthorn)’, 3 Aug 2011, https://livinglibraryblog.com/straif-blackthorn/
Woolf, Jo, Britain’s Trees: A Treasury of Traditions, Superstitions, Remedies, and Folklore (London: National Trust Publication) 2020. Book.