Monday, 14 April 2014

Beauty and the Beast

This year, spring has been deliciously long and leisurely. With primroses (prima rosa = ‘first flower’) appearing at the beginning of the year, and since then we’ve been treated to a slow, steady procession of bursting buds, unfolding wings, and a gently swelling singing. Many species - blossom, butterfly and bird - I’ve spotted or heard far earlier than usual; each sign of incipient spring eliciting individual eureka moments. But one old flowery friend has delayed its annual anniversary this year.

Normally I expect the white showering of blackthorn flowers at the very beginning of spring; its bright white blossom leaving conspicuous, wedding-gown trains along hills, hedges and woodland edges. Yet only now, in the midst of April, are the blackthorn flowers finally in full flush, their snowy petals peculiar amongst the precocious warming, and greening, of spring. It’s as if, like me, the blackthorn was expecting a late, last flurry from Old Man Winter, but then realising it wasn’t coming has been thrown into a tardy, but tremendous, floristic display. “Beware a blackthorn winter…” old folks used to say: remarking on the tendency for a late cold snap in March when the blackthorn usually blooms. Instead, this year, we murmur amongst ourselves in appreciative awe: “Behold a blackthorn spring!” 

Although beautiful, to me the chaste, ivory-white flowers, without any softening tinge of creaminess, always seem a little cold and austere - like the formality of a church wedding. A vivid contrast to its lusty sister, hawthorn, the May-tree, with all its frothing fertility and bawdy associations of fumbling in the foliage. And there’s undoubtedly a beast as well as beauty about blackthorn. The innocent flowers contrast starkly with dark, bare branches, in turn bearing long, vicious spines: quick to scratch and slow to heal. It’s a difficult and painful plant - as anyone who’s ever had to prune its dense, tangled growth or tried to squeeze through a blackthorn hedge can attest; long loved by landowners, and cursed by many a poacher. Such symbolism is deeply culturally ingrained, apparently: an old word for blackthorn is ‘straif’ – relating to our modern words struggle and strife. 

Beautiful and painful: perhaps blackthorn holds a rich metaphor for the parameters of life...

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