Beware the Blackthorn Winter!

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 By then the tree’s white blossoms will have been replaced by the deep blue sloes that are sometimes used to flavour gin.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!

13 thoughts on “Beware the Blackthorn Winter!

  1. The Blackthorn’s flowers a very pretty. We barely have leaves budding here, let alone flowers, because of April’s sudden cold. I guess our weather isn’t all that dissimilar! It’s always fun learning more about the flora over there. 🙂

  2. essitolling says:

    My guess is that we’ll have a warm week soon and all the leaves will suddenly burst open. Apples and Almonds are blossoming already – and lots of rich yellow gorse on the hills.

  3. solsticedreamer says:

    the blackthorn is just starting to blossom here and the gorse really vibrant~we have seen two new foals and the sparrows are building a nest in one of our boxes…i cannot wait for this virus to be over and the rain to stop so i can get out and potter around the garden 🙂

    • essitolling says:

      Yes, it is great to see the sparrows returning. There were so many of them when I was young, but they took a hammering a few years ago, like many of the small birds. Lovely to see them increasing in numbers. I hope you are feeling better by now. I’m sure your garden is calling to you! Be well. 🙂

  4. james schroder says:

    “Ne’er cast a clout til May be out.” ……refers to when the may blossom is out …not the month of May ( as far as I was concerned )

  5. Mark Mawhinney says:

    “Ne’er cast a clout ’til May be out” refers to the hawthorn blossom and not the month.

  6. Rosa Jones says:

    Are there two types of blackthorn? This year we had bushes covered in white blossom very early, in February. That went over and now we have a second session looking identical.

  7. Linda Emmett says:

    Yes I always say this about a blackthorn Winter as I grew up in the country and my mother always said it too. It’s bizarre, but it happens every Spring, you start to get warm weather, then cold north winds for a couple of weeks until the blackthorn is over and then it’s suddenly warm again!

    One thing in your article that I’ll disagree on is the saying of “ne’er shed a clout ’til May is out”. I always understood that to mean the May flower (Hawthorn), and not the month of May.

    Otherwise it is a very good factual account.

    Lin Emmett, of West Sussex, but formerly of the Isle of Wight.

  8. susancarey says:

    Like you, I always thought that ’till May is out’ referred to the month May but I heard/read somewhere that it means till May, meaning the Hawthorn is out, or blossomed.

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