The first trees are beginning to bloom in the Cotswolds; in a few days’ they will be billowing clouds of white blossom. My father, a countryman through and through, would always mark the occasion by repeating the old English warning of a coming “blackthorn winter” and “the cold blow” ahead. But was he correct?
The blackthorn (Prunus spinosa), also commonly known as sloe, is frequently used as a hedging plant where its tangled and viciously thorny branches make an impenetrable, stock-proof barrier. When left untrimmed it grows into a small tree.
I haven’t found a referral to the earliest date for a blackthorn winter but it almost certainly goes back centuries for the blackthorn is a ‘magick’ tree and often used in witchcraft. But can it really dictate the weather? Common sense says ‘no’ unless, of course you believe in magick.
There appears to be a problem with my father’s and others belief in the blackthorn winter. The tree that blooms first and so often referred to is not blackthorn but the cherry plum, another Prunus – Prunus cerasifera. Sometimes known as the Myrobalan Plum, it is also found in hedgerows and when allowed to grow to full height is often covered in red or golden cherry-sized, edible fruits. It was introduced from southern Europe about three hundred years ago.
So, blackthorn or cherry plum? For the time being we will be having a “cherry plum winter”. The sloe will blossom in about three weeks’ time when we will probably have the blackthorn winter too for one thing is proven: in England, we are far more likely to have a spell of wintry weather now than we ever are in December. Either way, let us hope that it is a good year for both trees for then we can look forward to cherry plum pies washed down with a nice glass of sloe gin.
Footnote: according to the British Meteorological Office, the term “blackthorn winter” originated in the Thames Valley, the birthplace of my father and where I was brought up. It will be interesting to know many of you use the term and where in the world you are located.
Since I was told about this as a child (over 60 years ago) It has never failed to arrive. Sometimes 2 weeks, sometimes less and sometimes with snow falling in the south of England and (in later years) in Brittany
Thanks, Catherine for your comment. It would be interesting to find out just how much truth there is in these old country sayings. I put a lot of store in (some of) them for they must stem from centuries of observation by generations that were far more ‘weather aware’ than us.
I am sure they were more aware it was their living wellbeing and even their calendar and clock no ludicrous armchair weather forecasting. Love your stuff Sir last thought take a look at Romany musing on these matters
Another bite at the Prunus. Much ado about casting clouts and monthsor plant.Iwontrelatea personal observation for me that was irrefutable of its origin.However If it is calendar what consequence the alteration to the calendar 1852.Odd years I have seen Hawthorne in 8/9June.
I grew up in a mill at the Fulda river in Germany, which greatly shaped my respect for nature. My Granny told us about the “Schlehenwinter” in spring, I still remember her words she told us every spring. Whenever the blackthorn hedges structure the fields conspicuously with their white blossoms, I know it’s getting cold.
And I know we will weather that short frost period – an be rewarded with the blue sloe fruits, which we wil use after the first sweetening winter frosts with sugar and schnaps to prepare delicious home-made liquor.
And we look forward to enjoying the next winter and the ensuing sloe winter in spring.
Thank you Werner for your comment. I was really interested to hear about the Schlehenwinter. I wonder if it is also known about elsewhere in Europe – I always assumed it was just an English folklore tradition. Like you, I always make some sloe liquor each year but using gin as the base. Also like you, I was brought up beside a river, the Thames. Let’s hope for a good sloe crop again this autumn.
“Die Eisheiligrn ( or Die Eis Maenner) kommen…..you can plant after May 15th
The Ice Saints are St. Mamertus (or, in some countries, St. Boniface of Tarsus), St. Pancras, and St. Servatius. They are so named because their feast days fall on the days of May 11, May 12, and May 13 respectively, known as the blackthorn winter in Austrian, Belgian, Croatian, Czech, Dutch, French, German, Hungarian, North-Italian, Polish, Slovak, Slovene and Swiss folklore.”
From my mother’s stories, a Donau Schwaben from Romania.
Thank you so much for your comment. It is interesting to hear of the tradition from elsewhere in Europe. This year (2022) we have had the mildest of winters and when the blackthorn came into flower we had the coldest weather of the season. Proves the old saying is true! John