The Thirteen Trees
Ogham Moon Calendar
The Five Trees
The Half Year
The Sacred One
'See even now, in hedge and thicket tangled,
One brave and cheering sight:
The leafless branches of the blackthorn, spangled
With blossoms starry white!'
a verse from 'The Blackthorn Fairy' by Cicely Mary Barker - see her art work at the bottom of the page.
Prunus Spinosa – The Blackthorn – is a tree of profound magical tradition. It is designated one of the Eight Chieftain Trees on the Ogham Tract, where its name is Straif (strife) and is said to be the ‘Increaser of Secrets.’
It’s folk names include sloe (after its fruit), sloe plum, snag, spiny plum.
wishing thorn, faery tree, (dark) mother of the woods, pear hawthorn.
A Blackthorn hedge in full fruit, in the field next to Hurst Wood, Charing, October 2011
The Blackthorn, or Sloe Bush, is a small to medium sized deciduous shrub, growing to about 4 metres in the wild if left unpruned. The bushes grow in profusion on the edges of woods and amongst ancient hedgerows or in waste ground, on cliff-tops and screes where there is no chalk. They are often planted as barrier hedges since their strong, long thorns make an excellent defence. They can withstand repeated strong winds and will thrive in any soil as long as it isn’t full chalk or very acidic.
In 1889, T.F.Thiselton-Dyer wrote ‘The Folk-lore of Plants’, chronicling reports, memories and sayings from elderly country workers. There were two about the Blackthorn, as follows –
"An eldern stake and a blackthorn ether, Will make a hedge to last for ever"
and - "When the sloe tree is as white as a sheet, Sow your barley whether it be dry or wet."
The trees are an ancient, native pioneer species, the fruits eaten by early man. There’s evidence that the Blackthorn was used in Iron Age communities (c3400 yrs ago) as remains were found, buried in a straw filled pit (thought to be used for ripening and preserving the bitter sloes) in the Lake Village near Glastonbury and recorded in a vast catalogue of findings by the excavator Arthur Bulleid .........
‘The only things that call for special remark in the above list are the cultivated plants, for though the sloe, blackberry, and haw were eaten, they were probably nothing but the wild forms.’ from 'The Glastonbury Lake Village - a full description of the excavations and relics discovered 1892 – 1907' by Arthur Bulleid and Harold St.George Gray
Blackthorn trees along the lane, still in blossom in early April 2011
The small trees are bushy with dark, almost black stems and viciously thorny twigs, set at right-angles to the trunk and branches. The leaves are greyish-green, small (3 – 5cm long, 2cm wide), carried on short stalks and elliptical in shape. They spread easily by underground suckers and the thickets can become extremely dense.
The tiny five-petalled flowers are unusual in that they open very early in Spring, late February to March in a cloud of white blossom while the leaves are nothing but tiny buds. The clustered, white, starry flowers are very striking against the black of the bare branches.
From September on, the characteristic deeply bloomed blue-black bitter fruits begin to ripen. Known as sloes, they resemble tiny damsons. Inside the flesh is a greenish-yellow and there’s a single stone – they are a much loved autumn-winter fruit for many birds.
They can be ‘wild harvested’ in October, or after the first frosts, to make a delicious ‘Sloe gin’, which is kept until the Yuletime celebrations- (see below).
A Nightingale Singing - © BBC Picture Library 2010
Click above to listen to the beautiful sound of the nightingale
Blackthorn is an important haven for wildlife, many birds will nest in the protective thickets, including the song-thrush and the now scarce nightingale. The leaves provide food for the caterpillars of hairstreak butterflies and a vast community of different moth species.
The wood itself is not much worked nowadays, it doesn’t get to any great size but it does burn well! Still used for more ‘magical’ and traditional purposes – it makes fine (if notoriously difficult to manage) wands. It is very hard, will take a high polish and makes a strong, elegant and individually patterned walking stick.
In Ireland it was customarily used to make shillelaghs (a kind of club once used in sport). The base of the wood at the root often forms a large knobbly lump which naturally forms the head of the club. The sticks on the right were made by 'Olde Shillelagh Stick Makers & B & B' in County Wicklow.
Early manuscripts tell us that the sharp, long thorn of the Blackthorn was used as an awl by leather workers to make holes. Care is needed when picking the sloes, or harvesting the wood for craftwork as the spines can set up a nasty inflammation if scratching occurs.
from Robert Graves' version of 'Cad Goddeu' -'The Battle of the Trees' See my Ogham Sacred Trees page
Fruits, leaves and flowers of the Blackthorn have been effectively used in folk and herbal medicines for centuries. It appears that modern writers and workers with herbal medicines simply re-iterate the advice given by their two famous forefathers.
'Sloe Gin', a liqueur made from ripe sloe berries steeped in gin with added sugar, is a popular drink to take by the fireside in the dark, winter evenings - as a panacea for winter ills or simply for pleasure! (see my 'sloe-gin' recipe and instructions here).
Both the herbalists, John Gerard, writing in 1597, and Nicholas Culpeper in 1653 sing the praises of Blackthorn in their work ....
‘The juice of sloes do stop the belly, the laske and bloodie fluxe, the inordinate course of womens terms, and all other issues of blood in man or woman.’
writes Gerard, (picture of 'The Sloe tree' above).
Whilst Culpeper recommends a decoction of the powdered bark of the roots, or of the fresh or dried berries as a cure for ‘lask of the belly , or stomach, or the bloody flux, and to ease the pains in the sides or bowels.’
Also from Culpeper, high praise for the distilled liquid of fresh blackthorn flowers steeped for a night in sack (a kind of highly honeyed mead or sherry). It is ‘A most certain remedy, tried and approved, to ease all manner of gnawing in the stomach, sides and bowels, or any griping pains in any of them, to drink a small quantity when the extremity of the pain is upon them.’
The herbalist doesn’t stop there! A distillation of the leaves, a condensation of the juice of the berries, both made into lotions or ‘a simple distilled water of the flowers’ are all to be prescribed .....
‘to gargle, and wash the mouth and throat, wherein are swellings, sores, or kernels, or to stay the defluxions of rheum to the eyes and other parts, and also to cool the heat and inflammation in them, and to ease hot pains of the head by bathing the forehead and temples therewith.’
‘It is the juice of this berry that makes the famous marking ink to write upon linen; it being so strong an acid that no other acid known will discharge it.’
. The 'Physicians of Myddvai' recommend the following:
'For pain in the chest (dyspepsia.) Take a large quantity of black thorn berries, bruise briskly in a mortar, mixing very new ale therewith. Put this mixture in a new earthen pot, over its edges in the earth, for nine days and nights, giving it the patient to drink the first thing in the morning, and the last thing at night. '
Used contemporarily, the sloes, picked in October and ripened over a few frosts are extremely bitter and astringent, but rich in Vitamin C. They could be used fresh or dried, crushed and steeped in a little boiling water for at least a week. The resulting medicine could be taken internally to cleanse the blood of disorders and as a general metabolic stimulant and tonic.
The flowers, again fresh or dried can be made into a tisane with boiling water and drunk to help with stomach complaints.
The Blackthorn Elixir (left) can be bought online from Healthfoods UK
'Blackthorn Tree Essence' can be bought online from Green Man Essences where all sorts of essences made from our native tree flowers can be found in 10 and 30ml bottles.
Element: Fire Ruling Planet: Mars Gender: Masculine
'Lunantisidhe' by Andrew L Paciorek
Unlike most of the great mystic trees, the Blackthorn appears to be peculiarly our own. There is little or no association with the powerful mythical traditions of other civilizations, and the stories of old with mention of the tree or fruit are Celtic, both Irish and Scottish.
The Blackthorn is such a power for magick, that in Irish folklore it has its own faery tribe to guard it. They are called Lunantisidhe or Lunantishee, spiky, angry creatures who will curse you should you be foolish enough to try to cut wood from the trees at the day of old new year- Samhain (Nov 11th) and the old May Day, Beltane (May 11th ).
I can find no record that the Lunantisidhe ever updated their calendar, so do be careful to remember the dates!
'The Morrighan' by Emily Balivet
See the artist's huge range of mythological paintings here at her website
Blackthorn has a reputation for being a force for protection and hope amongst devastation, whilst at the same time being a source of pure malevolence.
It’s the latter belief which has survived and is familiar even to this day. This is most likely because there are so many superstitions linked with age-old witchcraft and the wood.
The tree is sacred to the third phase of the Triple Goddess, the Crone – known in differing guises as Morrighan or Cailleach or Beira, Goddess of Winter – all asscociations with the waning of life, the waning year and the waning moon. She is depicted at times carrying a stang or staff of blackthorn wood and often accompanied by her pathfinder crow or raven.
Early practitioners of dark witchcraft favoured the wood cut from Blackthorn and tipped with the thorns as a wand – or even as a ‘blasting rod’ or ‘black rod’, used apparently for cursing. The rod would frequently have the ancient Futhark rune for thorn ‘Thurisaz’ scratched or burned into it.
Illustration of Witch Burning from
The Cambridge Folk Museum.
The thorns have been found stuck into witches ‘poppets’, used as pins. Superstition tells us that the devil pricked the fingers of his victims with a sloe thorn and sealed the deals he made in the resulting blood. Because a scratch from the sloe bush was apt to go septic if unattended, it was thought to be poisonous.
Witches burned as heretics were sometimes accompanied into the fire with their blackthorn wands or staffs, and branches of it were thrown in to feed the flames. This may be where the tree gained its reputation for purification, and even exorcism.
The starry blossoms were considered unlucky and not worn as a decoration or brought into the house. They were associated with death, probably because they bloom on the bare, thorny black branches at winter’s end.
Blackthorn Magic, Charms and Beliefs
'The Blackthorn Fairy'
by Cicely Mary Barker
* Use the dried wood, thorns and berries in a herbal incense to banish negativity and in ceremonies of purification. If the malicious influences are very strong, burn the incense for seven days at noon and midnight.
* Should you happen to know of a child who has been captured by the fairies, go to the top of a fairy hill nearby and burn several blackthorn thorns (seven would be good as seven is the faery number). The child will be released.
'The Sloe Fairy'
by Cicely Mary Barker
* Pop a thorn or dried berry into your ‘charm bag’ for added protection from negative spirits and to attract positive powers.
* You may be able to summon The Wild Hunt at Samhain, All Hallows Eve, by taking a quantity of small, thorny blackthorn twigs and sloe berries. Circle the balefire three times and throw them into the depths. Fan the smoke, stare into it and ask to see the chase – if you dare!
In the Word Ogham of Cuchulain, the Blackthorn is described in riddles as ‘smoke drifting up from the fire’ and this can be taken as a sign of death.
* Add blackthorn wood to the Yule fire to banish winter and hail the return of the sun and the lengthening of the days.
* Unburden yourself of secrets by taking three sharp thorns from the tree for each secret you wish to tell. Bind them into bundles of three with a little red thread.
Stick each bundle into a shiny, fresh apple and whisper your secret close as you do it. (As rulers of the 'Dark and Light Side' of the year, Apple is often coupled with Blackthorn in Ogham and in magick). Next hang or stick the apple and its secrets onto the blackthorn tree and leave it there.