The Monthly Wort
The Monthly Wort will provide readers with detailed descriptions of specifically chosen herbs (aka “wort”, meaning a useful herb), splitting it into 4 categories over the span of the month. Herbal History, Medicinal Uses, Magical Uses and Growing/Harvesting. In order to get the full scope of each plant, stay tuned every week as we delve into spiritual and practical experience of Herbalism.
This is a very exciting month. I have been looking forward to doing Prunus spinosa for a good amount of time yet! This Monthly Wort, as you may have guessed from the image above, is going to be based on the Blackthorn Bush, a species of flowering plant in the rose family. It is native to Europe, western Asia, northwest Africa (locally naturalized), New Zealand (locally naturalized), New Zealand (L.N.) and eastern North America (L.N.). Just as widespread as its growth, its uses and cultural significance are just as prominent. Its berries have been found in archaeological sites from the Mesolithic and Iron Age periods (8000-2700 BC), suggesting it was part of human diet in those times.
- A Rose by Any Other Name -
Although commonly known as Blackthorn, it also goes by Buisson Noir, Crequier, Endrino, Epine Noire, Prunellier, Sloe, Slow Berry or Wild Plum flower. And that was just the short (easy to pronounce) list! The name spinosa is a Latin term describing the plant’s pointed and thorn-like spur shoots. More commonly called Blackthorn, that name is just as descriptive, considering the thorns and nearly black bark.
Blackthorn is compact and, as previously noted, quite a thorny shrub. In the native zones, it blooms with small, white, musk-scented flowers (the first tree of the season to bloom) prior to leaf growth and followed by the formation of purple-blue fruits known as sloes. As the season progresses, the sloes ripen and are picked in autumn, following the first frost, much like its relative, rose hips. This is the ideal time to pick, as the fruits become less astringent tasting due to the cold weather.
- For Hiding and Drinking -
That astringent flavor might not be disenchanting for some, however: In Britain’s rural countryside, sloe gin was made by infusing gin with sloes and sugar. It came to the local foragers along the means of Blackthorn’s other more popular use, which is a perfect cattle-proof hedge. Parliament had passed a series of Enclosure acts in the UK that turned common land into individual properties. The dividing lines were made out of hedgerows and, because of its dense and poky branches, Blackthorn was perfect candidate for the job. With the hedgerows all around the locals, it didn’t take them long to discover the sloes made for great booze! It is also said that if preserved in vinegar, they have a similar taste to Japanese umeboshi (Japanese salt plums). Furthermore, they can also be made into pies, jam and chutney. The juice of the sloes have been used in dye that turns a reddish color that washes out into a weather-resistant pale blue.
Another interesting thing that derived from this fruit is the term “sloe-eyed”, which is an expression for someone with dark eyes, as first used in A.J. Wilson’s novel Vashti (1867).
Once the season has passed, it’s a good time to start picking the thorns, as they are hardened and visible. These are great for poking into poppets (although we will get more into the lore of Blackthorn in The Monthly Wort: Blackthorn Magic). By wintertime, the deciduous tree sheds its yellow leaves and all that remains is a twisted, black skeleton. The shrub itself makes excellent firewood with little smoke, and soaks up fine polishes easily.
- Blackthorn Bata and Shillelagh -
Blackthorn is significant to the Irish for a variety of reasons, which is why it has such a large place in Irish lore. While there is belief that the ancient Irish alphabet Ogam also correlates to trees in Ireland, there’s a more practical use that came of Blackthorn to the people of the emerald isle. During a time when the Irish and the Scottish were not allowed to legally carry weapons, it is believed that people started carrying cudgels called bata which means “fighting stick”, although they are more popularly known as shillelagh (coined after the Shillelagh forest new Arklow, County Wicklow). These were sometimes made from oak, ash or holly, although the original bata was made from Blackthorn due to its hardness and strength, not to mention availability, and also the convenient knob that naturally forms from the root of the shrub. The bark was left on the bata, as it is particularly tough, and they cured it by burying it in a dung heap or smearing it with lard, then placing it in the chimney. This is what gives the batas their black, shiny appearance. They were finished off with oils and sealants to be carried as a walking stick – and an improvised weapon. In modern day, blackthorn sticks are carried by officers of the Royal Army Regiment and you will often see them represented in parades, sports teams logos and more of the like.
- Blackthorn Omen -
Blackthorn is often correlated with Hawthorn, the two trees dichotomies in their meaning, appearance and associated holidays. While Hawthorn is believed to be lucky, Blackthorn was always associated with dark witchcraft during medieval times and considered a bad omen. The devil was said to prick the fingers of his followers with a thorn of the Blackthorn tree. This no doubt goes back to its long-standing religious use to pagan communities in Europe. It doesn’t help that a wound caused by one of the thorns can easily become septic, although birds find it a suitable, protected haven.
That’s it for now! I’m very keen on delving into the next few weeks of Blackthorn material. I hope you all stick around through it and find out its questionable health benefits, deep and dark lore, and how to grow your own.