I love the old weather-sayings. Based on hundreds of years’ of observation, they are usually spot on!
Most of us are familiar with the old saying about March: “in like a lion, out like a lamb: in like a lamb, out like a lion.” Well, I think we can safely say that we got the second half of the prediction this year! After some lovely weather early in March, the first two weeks of April have seen north winds and plenty of morning frosts (my car has been iced over several times) which means I’m paying attention to another old saying: “Ne’er cast a clout til May be out.” In other words, keep your winter woollies on until the end of May!
The countryman’s expression for this time of year is “Beware the Blackthorn Winter.” This is because, although the Blackthorn is in full bloom by now, its pale blossoms are often matched by frost-whitened grass or snow-covered fields.
Blackthorn is very different from its cousin the Hawthorn (or Whitethorn). The Blackthorn’s bark is dark and smooth, whereas the bark of the Hawthorn is greener and rougher. Blackthorn blossoms are pure white with lemon-coloured stamens: Hawthorn’ are pale pink mixed with creamy-yellow centres.
Timing plays its part too. Whilst the hedgerows are awash with the white of the Blackthorn at this time of year, Hawthorns rarely bloom for another month or so (hence the Hawthorn’s country name of “May”). Lastly, the Blackthorn flowers before its leaves grow, so you get a real contrast of white flower on black bark, whereas the Hawthorn dresses itself in bright green well before its blossoms emerge.
The Blackthorn has a reputation as one of the “witch-trees” of the countryside, not least because you have to be very careful of their long (very sharp!) spikes which can puncture skin very easily and which have a tendency to turn septic. Associated with fairytales in which girls “prick their finger” and fall under a spell, the Blackthorn was reputedly what made up the “crown of thorns” of the crucifixion.
The old Celtic word for the tree was “straif” from which we take the word “strife” or “strive”. We’ll revisit this – and more of the Blackthorn’s magical qualities – during the Celtic Blackthorn Month in the autumn. By then the tree’s white blossoms will have been replaced by the deep blue sloes that are sometimes used to flavour gin.
For now, much as I love the white blossoms of the Blackthorn, I have to say that I’m looking forward to the hedgerows being covered in Hawthorn blossoms soon, because that will mean that summer is upon us. This year’s Blackthorn Winter is truly one to beware of! Brrrrr!