Blackthorn (Prunus spinosa) – the spiny hedgerow friend. Sometimes it’s worth looking at the latin, or botanical, name – it can tell you a lot. The ‘prunus’ tells us that blackthorn is part of the ‘cherry’ family – hence the rich, inky, dark fruits that blackthorn is famous for used to make a favourite wintry tipple – sloe gin. It’s an ancestor of our cultivated plum. The ‘spinosa’ tells us something about the long, sharp spines – the bane of anyone who’s ever laid a blackthorn hedge and the source of many a puncture for the winter cyclist after the hedge trimmer has done its work.

Identified in the hedge by its dark brown, even black, bark in winter it is early to blossom, often the first burst of life in the early spring hedgerow with its clouds of snow-white flowers. This means it flowers on the previous season’s growth so annual trimming will rob the hedge of this glorious spring display. I’ve often spoken to people who were unable to trim their hedges during a wet winter who were surprised by the beauty of the blackthorn blossom in March/April.

Left to grow freely, blackthorn can reach 6-7m in height and live for 100 years. Its dense, spiny habit personifies the very definition of a ‘thicket’. It suckers readily to provide the thickest of hedges.

Early flowering, blackthorn provides a valuable source of nectar and pollen for bees in spring. Its foliage is a food plant for the caterpillars of many moths, including the lackey, magpie, swallow-tailed and yellow-tailed. It is also used by the black and brown hairstreak butterflies. Birds nest among the dense, thorny thickets, eat caterpillars and other insects from the leaves, and feast on the sloes in autumn.

Blackthorn timber is hardwearing and tough, light yellow with a brown heartwood. It was traditionally used for making walking sticks and tool parts. Traditionally, blackthorn was used in a wealth of remedies including tonics and syrups that ‘cleansed the blood’, aided digestive complaints and eased rheumatism. These tonics and syrups made use of the blackthorn’s bark, flowers and fruit.

Source: Woodland Trust

Illustration by Joanna Uglow