Blackthorn Winter

Written by Anne N 14th April 2020, updated 2023 & 2024

Beware the Blackthorn Winter...

is a country saying for this time of the year.

The Blackthorn Winter is a spell of cold weather in early April which often coincides with the blossoming of the blackthorn (Prunus spinosa) in hedgerows. The pure white of the blackthorn blossom, which appears before the leaves, matches the snow or hoar frost covering the fields nearby and almost invariably bitter north easterly winds. The longer days and sun gaining strength this time of year we're often given a spell of warmer weather - but then the Blackthorn Winter comes along and reminds us it’s not quite summer yet.

A Blackthorn Winter can be described as the opposite of an Indian summer.

Did you know that statistically, we are more likely to have snow at Easter than at Christmas?

Blackthorn blossom start to appear in the hedgerows end March, beginning of April. The blossoms which are appear before the leaves on dark smooth thorny branches. The Blackthorn’s bark is dark and smooth giving a contrast of white blossoms against black branches. The blackthorn flowers eventually become purple sloes, ripening in autumn and harvested traditionally in October or November after the first frosts and used to make a lovely Sloe gin liquer.

Blackthorn blossom should never be brought into the home lest certain death would follow. I was always taught to respect the blackthorn as if the long sharp blackthorn spikes puncture the skin it can lead to septic poisoning. It is also said that the crucifixion’s crown of thorns was almost certainly blackthorn.

The old Celtic word for the tree was “straif” from which we take the word “strife”. In Irish the tree is called Draighean.

There is a fairy fort in the townland of Ardmone.

There is a fairy fort in the townland of Ardmone. The Danes (Dedannans) live in them, as they never died.

One day a man was going along the Ardmone Road, when he found a blackthorn stick, as he was passing near the fort he knocked at one of the tiny doors supposed to be in the fort at that time & inquired if anyone owned the stick.
A little man dressed in red came out & said he did not own it but he would ask his grandfather. He came out & said he did not own it but he would ask his grandfather, who when he came out said he did not own but that his grandfather did.
Source: Duchas School's Collection

Local Fairs - Aonaigh na Dúiche (Tipperary)

There was a big fair held in Ballingarry about thirty years ago, but it was discontinued because there was not a sufficient number of buyers coming..... They used to be held on the fair green on certain days in the year. The biggest fair was held there on the 23rd July. It was called the "gooseberry" fair because there used to be big carts of gooseberries sold in the village on that day...
At this time there were two rival factions in the parish. The "Coravats" and the "Shanovests" and they used to be fighting with blackthorn sticks. The fight used to start generally when the fair was over and used to continue for two hours. Towards evening Fr Philip Fitzgerald P.P. used to visit the fair for the purpose of collecting the blackthorn sticks from the men. There is a room in the Parochial house still called the "blackthorn" room.

Hawthorn and Cherry Plum

Don’t confuse blackthorn with the much more amiable Hawthorn (Crataegus), which dresses itself in bright green leaves well before it's blossoms emerge. Also called quickthorn, thornapple, May-tree, whitethorn.

Crataegus, is derived from the Greek kratos "strength" because of the great strength of the wood and akis "sharp", referring to the thorns of some species. In Irish the tree is called Sceach gheal. It usually blossoms in early May with the warmer weather, hence the saying:

“Ne'er cast a clout ‘til May be out".

This is a warning not to shed any clothes before the summer has fully arrived and the Mayflowers / hawthorn blossom snare in full bloom. Hawthorn blossoms become the red haws in the autumn and are used to make Hawthorn Jelly and Hawthorn Brandy.

Hawthorn is a good tonic for the heart and circulation. Blackthorn Prunus spinosa is frequently confused with the related Prunus Cerasifera, cherry plum, particularly in early spring when the Cherry Plum starts flowering somewhat earlier than Blackthorn. They can be distinguished by flower colour, Blackthorn blossom is pure white, whereas Cherry plum blossom is creamy white.