Mother of the woods

Spring has daubed the landscape with splashes of yellow.  Daffodils slowly blooming; a smattering of coltsfoot; the first marsh marigolds squatting in the mud and a handful of cowslips emerging from papery shells.  But the blackthorn has been my true herald of spring.  It blossoms early, before the other spring flowers have awakened, before its leaves have unfurled.  Look at the hedgerows and you’ll see it alongside its sister hawthorn, the rich green of the hawthorn leaves contrasting with the blackthorn’s leafless blooms.  But here, guarding the bridge over the burn, I’ve met my own blackthorn, my own witch’s tree.

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Blackthorn is known as the Mother of the Woods because its thickets can create the conditions for other trees to grow.  Often, it’s no more than a tangled hedgerow shrub, pretty but unexceptional.  As a mature tree though, its presence is unmistakable.  The charcoal gnarling of the trunk and limbs are a deep contrast to its flowers.  Spindly branches shiver with blossoms.  It’s a tree of protection, a tree to linger beneath.  It enfolds and shelters me like a snowy parasol.  I feel secluded, viewing the world through tumbling branches and a veil of milky blooms.

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The blackthorn is burdened with a sinister reputation.  Its thorns are sharp and plentiful and it was said that the devil used them to mark the fingers of his followers.  They were placed beneath the saddles of horses so that they would throw their riders and dipped in poison to pierce human flesh.  It’s said that the crown of thorns worn by Jesus was fashioned from hawthorn and blackthorn.  Fighting sticks and clubs were made from its wood.  It was supposedly used in black magic and witches were burned on its pyres as a final humiliation, the witches’ tree turned against them.  Blackthorn is the ‘keeper of dark secrets’.  But standing here beneath its branches, I know that this tree isn’t dark, it’s luminous.

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Not all blackthorn’s associations are sinister.  Garlands of hawthorn and blackthorn were placed at the top of the maypole at Beltane to stimulate fertility.  It was said to blossom miraculously at midnight on Christmas Eve, along with the Glastonbury Thorn.  At new year it was burned to bring fertility to the land and hung with mistletoe to bring good luck.  Blackthorn is also a strongly protective tree.  In some tales, it was the hedge that protected Sleeping Beauty as she slumbered.  Blackthorn is balance: hawthorn is often seen to symbolise the light half of the year, while blackthorn is the dark.  Yet blackthorn has both light and dark within itself.

Blackthorn

It’s no surprise that I’ve been drawn to the blackthorn this spring.   There is a darkness in it, symbolised by its wicked thorns and bitter fruits.  It’s the darkness of stagnancy and self-doubt that lies within us.  The twisted branches symbolise that the journey out of darkness isn’t quick or easy.  Blackthorn is a powerful tree and its guardianship isn’t to be taken lightly.  Its protection lies in fierce thickets of impenetrable briars.  But its blossoms are hope, bursting into bloom while the season is still frigid.  The luminosity of its flowers is an embodiment of the purification and creativity it brings.  Its thorns can wound, but they can also tear a path through the thicket.  If you accept the guidance of the blackthorn, you need to be prepared for challenge and uncomfortable change but you’ll be rewarded by abundance.

Last year my eyes were drawn downward, to the small wild things that spring from the earth.   This year, the trees are calling and the Mother of the Woods is my first teacher.

136 thoughts on “Mother of the woods

  1. What a fascinating post, Andrea. I will definately see the blackthorn in a new mulifaceted light. They are very beautiful when in blossom, but I’ve not seen one as huge as in your photo before. Must go on a search this week to see if our Sussex blackthorns are in bloom, too.

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    • Thanks Sarah – I’d never seen one like this before either, so it took me completely by surprise! Since then I’ve been seeing them everywhere in the hedgerows, next to the hawthorns which are starting to get their leaves. Don’t know about spring though, it’s like summer today!

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  2. Andrea, I’d hate to have to choose a favorite from among your posts, but this one is superb. It is a gift you have that your words can at once light a flicker of hope in my eyes, yet also give me a sense of peace, calm.
    I wasn’t familiar with these things about a blackthorn tree. I wonder if they grow here… At any rate, I can easily see why you are attracted to it, even beyond its beauty. Wonderful photos.
    Huge hugs my friend. 🙂 ⭐

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  3. What a tease! It’s snowing here today 😦 Flurries. I NEED tree blossoms haha. I’m happy to see spring is springing where you are. I LOVE flowers and tree blossoms. I never tire of looking at them in photos. And I learned something new re: the blackthorn.Thank you 🙂

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  4. Lovely post, Andrea. Our blackthorn isn’t blossoming yet but any day now. The cherry trees are also just on the verge. Lots of daffs out, celandine, primula. Such a glorious, joyous time of year.

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  5. What a gorgeous post, through and through! Not only beautiful prose but I’ve learned something! Now, I needs must know if they grow here; and if they do, did I blindly walk past them and never notice? I pray not…

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  6. Andrea such a stunning tribute to all things nature. The trees sound intriguing, steeped in a dark history and yet your photos show such beauty to me. Thanks for sharing your spring, as I sit here with frozen fingers tapping awkwardly on the laptop.

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  7. Personally I make my clubs and cudgels out of oak. 🙂 Yes, writing in the shelter of that tree would be quite an experience — or performing a druidic ceremony, for that matter.

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  8. Nothing quite like Mother Nature claiming that spring is here, and this photo series (and your writing) do it justice as well. The last photo is the perfect way to start the day ~

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  9. Stunning writing as always, Andrea. I’m a huge fan of your descriptions as you know but you’ve taken this one up a notch. Yellow, for me, is the definitive colour for spring – I loved this post!

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  10. A synchronistic blog for me Andrea…I didn’t know all of this (at all) about the blackthorn yet I painted it twice last spring…which felt like a gateway to me, in my life and my health. A year later, the same tree has just come into lumminous bloom, out if its gnarled dark trunk, at the fork in two bridlepaths in the forest where I like to walk (one is straight on along the long trek I have walked for years, but the bend in the route by the tree takes me to a light-filled spot complete with lake and swans where I’ve started to sit down and take my time). At the same point as that blossominghappening, I have been deep in pondering about how ‘the journey out of darkness isnt quick or easy’ (perfectly put) as, a year later, I am still tackling challenges with my health….and yet the invitation to become more light-filled that it threw down for me last year still remains so strong in my heart that my painting Prelude felt like the most important subject I painted all year and I still feel its power when I gaze at it, all year round. Thank you for tying this thread for me as the insight into the messages of this special tree has been like a jigsaw piece to my own situation!

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    • These things come when we need them, don’t they? I’d noticed blackthorn before in hedgerows and found it pretty and I’ve walked past this tree many times in the past year without really noticing it, but then one day, there it was in full blossom and taking my breath away, just at a time when I need that light. Funny too that I loved Prelude when you painted it but didn’t register that it was blackthorn…

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  11. Wonderful history and prose and pics. I went from 90 degrees in San Diego with lots of blooming cacti, bird of paradise trees and orchids to 30 degrees in Western NY with not a daffodil in sight, but that just means I didn’t miss anything.

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  12. I think I’ve found my spirit tree… but what a pity I have never seen one around these parts. Fortunately I have you to help me enjoy them vicariously! But you’ve also reminded me of the opening lines of a child’s poem my grandmother taught me: “A green hobgoblin, small but quick, went out walking with a blackthorn stick…” Actually, even though I’m not posting new stuff for a while, I’d like to reblog this if I can, and I’ll post the poem (and my untutored illustration of the titular character) there for you.

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  13. Lovely photos, Andrea, and I learned some things today from you about the blackthorn. It’s mysteriously beautiful and i can see why you would be drawn to it. Don’t you love this time of year when Nature puts on a show of life and color awakening all around us.

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  16. Hi, Andrea — Happy Spring!!

    Such beautiful photos. I, too, have a strong feeling for trees. Thanks for sharing the information about the history of associations. Very interesting.

    Wishing you a glorious season and much tree-enjoyment. ❤

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  17. We have hawthorns here, but I’m not so sure about blackthorns. The one you show is so impressive! Some of our Spring trees are finally blooming, too, but they’re rather on the late side this year after the rough winter we had. Still, they are a welcome sight for winter-weary eyes!

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    • This one is particularly impressive JM, we have a lot of them, particularly in the hedgerows but they’re usually much smaller and spindlier. It’s interesting to see the two together, the hawthorn leaves are very noticeable now and they’ll be blooming soon enough.

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  18. Andrea, I love that you choose to see the blackthorn as luminous rather than accepting its dark reputation. As I read those words from you, I thought about how some people are misunderstood and taken to be one way when in fact they are not meaning harm. It is lovely to read your post and those photos are magnificent! Let’s rest in nature for a while and enjoy the day 🙂

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  19. Your post is so heartfelt and evocative Andrea, I sense the pull of the dark and the light through your words and you have taught me so much about the Blackthorn Tree. Trees have played a huge part in my life, remembering how they whispered to me when I walked through the woods as a girl with my dad, pretending that I was listening to their conversations. Love this: ‘It’s a tree of protection, a tree to linger beneath. It enfolds and shelters me like a snowy parasol. I feel secluded, viewing the world through tumbling branches and a veil of milky blooms.’ This is exquisite writing and I am so glad that you feel this tree’s safety and shelter, it’s soft veil wrapped around you as you are guided through this phase of your life by the Mother of the Woods. Beautiful post Andrea.

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  20. The blackthorn is a tree I only know through books and stories. It is lovely to read more about its history and its traditions. I looked it up in my book of English plants, and the reference says the blackthorn provides the main ingredient for sloe gin – now that’s a different kind of spirit. 🙂

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  21. Reblogged this on Fairy of Disenchantment and commented:
    Although I’m making good on my word to knuckle down and work on the novel rather than the blog, this doesn’t mean I can’t reblog any number of excellent posts from my kindred spirits. This one, from one of my favorite blogs, Harvesting Hecate, not only instilled in me a newfound passion for a tree I’ve never seen before (but mean to seek out), but made me think instantly of a child’s poem I learned from my grandmother, which she always called “The Green Hobgoblin”. Actually titled “A Goblinade”, it was written by Florence Page Jacques, and begins “A green hobgoblin / small but quick / went out walking with a black thorn stick”. Somewhere in my house there’s a version of this handwritten by my grandma and illustrated by me, but sadly I can’t locate it just now (sorry, Andrea!); in the meantime, you can find the poem here: http://www.ruths-study.com/miscellaneous/goblinade.html And enjoy the post!

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  22. Simply wow. I can see the powerful connection you feel with the tree and it’s hauntingly beautiful through your words. I’ve never seen a tree like that in person before. Bet it makes you stop and go deep just by looking at it.

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  23. Your photos as beautiful. I can’t also believe how much the flowers have bloomed. We have yet to see a bud on our trees here in Canada where I live. And the grass is still brown. I still have some snow near the deck that has yet to melt. Long, long winter!

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  24. Mysteriously beautiful and yes, I too can see why you’re so drawn to it Andrea. I knew about Hawthorn, the goddess tree, and its therapeutic applications but never heard of Blackthorn. Fascinating story about light and dark. One cannot be without the other. Even their flowers are much alike, though the berries differ from red to blue. Thank you Andrea for this insightful post.

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  25. I’m just sitting next to a blooming cherry-tree and I have a problem seeing the difference between it and the one from your pictures LOL but nevermind, they’re both equally beautiful 🙂

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  26. Just lovely, Andrea. I love the reflections on the blackthorn in particular, how protective it is. It’s fascinating how things in nature LooK like the gifts they offer (beans, shaped like kidneys, are good for the kidneys – in moderation). This truism is behind the title The Signature of All Things, the novel by Elizabeth Gilbert. I also love your closing observation and self-awareness. It is wonderful following your gaze on your journey.

    (I shared this post with one of my loyal readers Writing to Freedom. Thought it might speak to him.)

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