Thursday 17 October 2019

Thorn bushes were once highly valued


'SCEACH' IS an Irish word that has two meanings. In a general sense it means any ' thorny bush'. Specifically it is ' an Sceach Gheal', the Hawthorn, one of the most common of our native shrubs and a species that is locally frequent in wayside hedgerows and other field boundaries.

Some people lump the Gorse in with the general definition of a thorny bush but to most people the true sceach is either the Hawthorn or the Blackthorn. As their names tell us, both are thorn bushes. In the past their bushy habit and their thorns - vicious spines in the case of the Blackthorn - meant they were valued when layered in that they helped make stockproof field boundaries before the use of barbed wire became popular. Both are sometimes known simply as ' Thorns' or, since they grow quickly, 'Quickthorns'.

The Hawthorn and the Blackthorn are easily told apart by the fact that the Blackthorn flowers in April on bare branches. The leaves follow as the white flowers fade. Last week the Blackthorn put on a fine display and thickets of it were ablaze with white blossoms, their whiteness often set off by an accompanying foil of green and golden Gorse.

The ' black' part of the Blackthorn's name refers to the shrub's bark that is normally dark greyish-brown or blackish in colour. In contrast, the bark of the Hawthorn is pale as evidenced by its Irish name 'an Sceach Gheal', ' geal' implying brightness and paleness. 'Whitethorn' in English is a misleading name as it can equally refer to either the pale bark of the Hawthorn or the very white flowers of the Blackthorn.

The Hawthorn flowers in May which gives the shrub yet another name: the 'Maybush' or simply ' the May'. It has well leaved out by now and its flower buds are on the point of bursting, if not open already. The five-petalled flowers are not as white as those of the Blackthorn and are often suffused with pink. Fully pink flowers are not unusual.

Autumn fruits will follow and it is the haw, the fruit of the Maybush that gives the shrub its preferred common name Hawthorn. The fruit of the Blackthorn is, of course, the sloe.

A lone Hawthorn in open ground can grow into a small tree. In the past such lone specimens were believed to be associated with fairies giving the species yet another name: ' the Fairy Tree'.

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