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Beauty among the thorns

Outdoor Living

THORNY ISSUE The ever-giving blackthorn offers bountiful blossoms, astringent sloes and strong shillelagh stems.

Country Sights and Sounds

John Shelley

On rounding Otter Point, which must, at some time, have been a renowned haunt of the animal that gave the place its name, James and myself were met with a miniature forest of blackthorn, every bit of it in full flower.
With the wind blustering from the north to ferry bank after bank of thick cloud overhead, the day carried an unseasonal chill. But here, in the lee of the greater woodland that covers much of the headland of Derrinrush, the air was warmer and filled with the scent of that immeasurable quantity of creamy white blossom.
This year has given us a reminder of ‘Blackthorn Winter’, an age-old phenomenon that often brings a period of cold night frosts and cool days at the time the blackthorn blossoms.
A member of the rose family, blackthorn is best known for the harvest of sloes that can be taken from its perilously thorny branches. Sloes, which are used to add a little astringency to jams and preserves or soaked in alcohol to make an interesting winter drink, are at their best after the first frosts of late autumn, and at this time the thorns and sharply pointed spines that decorate the shrub have lost much of their potency.
Oh, they are still sharp enough, but the toxic sap that fills them in spring and summer has abated and lost its potency, so that a spine through the bottom of ones boot and into the sole of the foot, while being extremely painful, is unlikely to require anything more than the attention of the home medic and a stout needle.
A spring thorn, on the other hand, is poisonous and likely to cause some degree of infection, the first sign of which is reddening and swelling at the site of the wound. While rather painful, this is generally tolerable and likely to fade after a few days. But if a thin red line should become visible and start to progress up one's arm or leg a visit to the doctor would be highly recommended, for sepsis is developing.
Otter Point has enough blackthorn to ground an army, if not by spines alone, then certainly with the large quantity of shillelaghs that were on offer. James weighed up several prospective weapons, even wrapping his leathered hand around stem after stem to find the best fit.
‘Why blackthorn?’ I asked him. ‘Why not whitethorn or oak, or any other kind of wood?’
Using examples from the thicket before us, he pointed out various attributes of the blackthorn that made it the traditional weapon of choice. ‘Look at this one here. See how the stem is straight? Well, there’s a ball of root beneath that the size of my fist.’ (He showed me his fist with, I felt, unnecessary enthusiasm.) ‘That’d either wake a man or send him to sleep, depending on how you used it.’ A dreamlike quality fell over his features and his eyes lit with glee.
‘The wood is light, yet as strong as any. And the bark turns black with age and darker with use. Every one is different. Look here now, see how this branch grows out at a little under 90 degrees? Cut about a foot long with a lump of stem, that would fit perfectly in the pocket.’
His eyes moved among the thicket as mine scanned the woodland edge for birds. Two yearling fallow deer sprang to their feet from a sunny spot and bounded a short distance away before turning to stare, their liquid eyes big and round, outsized ears craning forward, muscles well defined, taut, ready to sprint for the safety of tree cover. Their tawny summer coats gleamed in a moment of sun, the few white spots that decorated rump and flank glowing as highlights. ‘Look at that!’ I exclaimed.
‘I know, isn’t it a beauty?’ At work with his knife, James was focused on a particularly fine piece of blackthorn that was covered with spines along its entire five-foot length, each of which grew out of a round, thumbnail-sized bump. It took him 20 minutes to clean his prize and I knew it would take a lot longer to finish it at home. It would make a fine walking staff though, complete with a slender fork at the top and a slight but artistic twist a little below that.
When I looked back to where the deer had been they were gone. It has been several months since I saw them at all. They have been hard-pressed in this part of the country, so much so that the few we saw in the fields around home have disappeared altogether, much to my disappointment. It is true, as a shooting neighbour once expressed, that I have no concerns about deer-borne disease, no fences to maintain, no shortage of grass or crops to be stolen. While I enjoy the deer, others compete with them.
There is beauty to be found even among thorns.