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In some of the darkest nooks and crannies of Glastonbury, the blackthorn grows so slow and old that it has become draped in a full regalia of lichen. At this time of the year, when its delicate white blossoms first appear, so comfortable is their contrast with the daubed lichen, that one might be forgiven for assuming that it’s the lichen, rather than the thorn itself that is producing the flower.

These old timers grow hunched and weathered, writhing and tangled in the most unexpected forms – they are the deeply protective, intensely probing, seers of remote places. Blackthorn is a tree of paradox, indeed not even a tree in most cases, but growing as a multi-stemmed shrub or bush and mostly found in hedgerows. The tree’s first impression is somewhat thorny. Heavily guarded with finger-long spines that will not only pierce skin but cause a wound to infect and refuse to heal. This weaponry is enough to deter any would-be grazers who may like to nibble the thorns’ new shoots. The armoury protects the new growth, as well as its spears of sweet flowers, but also ensures its fruit is kept for its intended consumption by birds nimble enough to evade the guards.

The thorn’s delicate blossom appears in early spring and is one of the first shows of the season. It provides early butterflies and bees one of the first sweet meals of the year. The perfect flowers of the prunus, containing both male and female parts, once pollinated will produce Sloes – a stoned fruit like a tiny plum, known as a drupe. Sloes can be somewhat unassuming, they don’t glow red like the haws and berries, instead they look like cloudy polished pebbles that appear to have arisen from the farthest depths of somewhere deep and are coloured in the darkest of magenta.

Thorny shrub in the rose family (Rosaceae) with cluster of ripe purple fruit in Autumn

The cloudy skin of the fruits – in accordance with its lore, hides a secret: that it is in fact a viciously sour and astringent tasting fruit, and as if in revenge for an inconsiderate picking, dries one’s mouth making speech impossible. This makes them unsuitable for human consumption without some sort of preparation, cooking or fermentation in alcohol, to be at all palatable. They can be toxic in large amounts, but also can act as a healthy diuretic and source of vitamin C in the right amounts. It appears to be the blackthorn’s character to deceive, to trick, or to throw one off its scent and one must be persistent and gentle in their approach to befriending a tree of such nature.

The thorn’s first impression alone should cause one to consider their approach, with its dark bark,  its threatening spines and its stark, threatening appearance, it’s no wonder the tree is deeply linked in folklore with bad omens, bad luck, and strife. But deeper than this shallow, probably Christian derived folklore, she is a protector: the crone of the woods. The thorn, very bluntly, has everything to do with death, with weaponry, encroachment and attack, but also with deep protection and guardianship, and has a lot to say about the waning of life, season, and the moon – the territory of the wise old crone.

I set some time aside to explore the blackthorn while at its most striking. It can be easiest to identify at this time of the year as its pretty white blossoms appear before its leaves, and before the blossom and foliage of most other trees, to create compelling contrasts of fluffy white sprays held erect by their angular and armoured black branches. Blackthorn is a pioneer species, viciously territorial, ready to claim and colonise virgin land for their own, turning field edges into vast thorn thickets, beneath which no light can go, and not much grows except moss and lichen. Once a patch has been lost to blackthorn, it’s very difficult to reclaim by any natural means.

Much of Glastonbury’s hedgerows contain at least some blackthorn. In some places, especially on the North west of the isle, complete swathes have developed within the unmanaged coombes and only become noticeable when their blossom bursts. The quick young blackthorns, shooting young and vigorous atop the rows, are regularly managed to keep them in hedge form, but in some places have managed to overcome their hedge and initiate themselves as individual trees. As well as reproducing via the dispersal of the seeds thanks to the birds who are brave enough to eat the fruit’s flesh, blackthorn is also able to clone herself from the roots. The thorn tunnels through the underground and then crawls up through the earth, to create new blackthorn clones.

Blackthorn Suckers

This method of reproduction makes it effective for developing thick protective hedgerows, but it also allows the tree to encroach into fields, to gain ground, and claim new blackthorn territory for its own. As the thorns’ new growth ‘suckers’ up through the earth, they create sprigs in the fields that appear like tiny thorns running gayly into the open land. But they are not so naive, for If not nibbled, or otherwise managed, these crawling thorns will take the entire field for their own, eradicating any other species and casting vast dark circular thickets, impenetrable sheep trappers that can be removed only by blade.

While the quick young blackthorn occupies the hedges, another type of thorn, the giant slow-time veteran blackthorns, lurk deep in the overgrown coombes, where springs dribble and fairy doors are concealed. These are substantial creatures of many decades in age, protective spinneys surrounded by thickets of their own thorned fencing, that keep humans where the humans should be and protect the other realms from our menace.

I went in search of the leviathan blackthorns on the north western edge of the island. Allowed to reach such colossal sizes only because they reside in a relatively inaccessible coombe that has been left to nature for decades. Here one can find blackthorn with trunks like the thighs of gladiators, and reaching beyond the alleged maximum height of blackthorn, somewhere between 6-8 metres. The Thorn of Black is known traditionally never to reach more than 13 feet, perhaps an old wives tale associated with the unluck of this number. The beasts to be found here, stand up at around 10 metres, they are rare Spinosa, and perhaps the only Blackthorn specimens in all of Avalon, that could be considered ancient.

Typically, at a certain height, the branches of the thorns become so girthy and the weight of bounty so heavy that they succumb to their own weight and their limbs crack and twist apart. Bent and hunched, they appear done for, yet so tough and hardy is the blackthorn, that it writhes back to life – the half fallen branch still adequately attached to its root system to continue on. Once the branch is down it might transform a few square metres into a fresh blackthorn thicket and open up new space and light for the consumption of its own descendants – Another of the ways in which this mysterious plant crawls across the landscape, chasing out other species and creating new blackthorn dominions.

These ancient blackthorns are not easily found, one must look deeper than the surface of the hedgerows, venture farther into the wilderness of the coombes. One must be willing to risk a stabbing, possible enchantment, almost certain entanglement, and even infection to reach the harbours of these proud and protective crones. Once there, one must stop and be quiet and still for an unknown amount of time, to sink into the dirt of the earth behind closed eyes, before the shadowy ones make themselves known – rusty trunks appearing where no trunks were apparent but a minute before, dark black thorns held threateningly against the jugular, and a muscular branch constricted around ones ankle, while the old crone confirms that you only intend to sit, and are of no threat to the deep secrets of their realms.

They are not shy, rather blackthorns, somewhat admirably seem not to desire the company of plants or humans whatsoever, they do their best to remain undesirable in their appearance, while also transforming their surroundings into a less than attractive, yet creepily compelling wilderness – Grumpy blackthorn prefers to be alone and I am best advised to keep their whereabouts, the location of their deepest thickets and realms they protect, a highly confidential matter.

With Blackthorn staff,
I draw the bound.
All malice and bane,
I thus confound.

MW – 26/3/24

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Matt Witt

Author Matt Witt

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