A blackthorn winter in April

When blackthorn's in bloom it heralds a cold spell.
When blackthorn's in bloom it heralds a cold spell.

by Heather Elvidge

Don’t be tempted by those rails of spring clothes. This is April, the month of hailstones and chilly winds.

According to legend it’s the month of gentle rain – “April showers bring forth May flowers” – in reality its weather is a mixture of everything. But folklore says we’ll have to put up with it if we want a decent summer.

Last week’s rain gave a boost to the trees spurring young, foolish cherries into bloom and bringing a sprinkling of green to the hawthorns, or whitethorns as they used to be called.

Whitethorn has a sinister-looking partner, blackthorn. In late autumn these bushes bear blue-black sloes, like little damsons, which are used to flavour gin. In April they relish a cold spell known as the blackthorn winter.

Exactly when blackthorn will bloom is hard to predict, but it’s always when other plants are wilting from the cold. Its bare, black branches become so smothered by white flowers that a blackthorn hedge can resemble a snowdrift.

The leaves of blackthorn appear after the flowers and that, along with the knobbly, black branches, aids identification. In hedges blackthorn forms a tangle, defended by long thorns that break off to leave festering spells in the skin. These are the weapons of its guardian spirits, bad-tempered faeries called 

Garden life

On a fine day, the volume of song from garden birds is heartening. Male blackbirds are in good voice now at dawn, dusk and sometimes in the afternoon, despite being busy taking food to a nesting partner.

April is the time for egg laying, when birds need to maintain their strength. A supply of sunflower hearts will help them, and attract some handsome visitors to the garden. You might see a greenfinch, a gorgeous green bird with a gold wing bar; a cock chaffinch with pink breast and blueish cap; and most exotic of all, a goldfinch with his red mask and black wings flashing with gold.

Many tasks were put off during the cold, windy weather — now gardeners have some catching up to do. If you’ve a fancy to try something new, why not help wild bees by making some room for their favourites. Bees like simple flowers such as geraniums, potentilla, ox-eye daisies, feverfew, poppies, borage, toadflax and foxgloves.

While they’re busy collecting food, those wild bees will be working for us, setting the flowers on everything from beans to fruit trees.

You might have seen some already on sunny days, feeding on the willow catkins dusted with golden pollen. These are buff-tailed bumblebees, the first to emerge from hibernation, and they are all queens.

Soon each queen will be checking old walls and hedge bottoms to find a suitable hole for a nest site, where she will lay her eggs and care for the new generation. During the summer her little colony will expand, finally producing the new queens that will emerge next spring.

Meanwhile, April 11 to 14 is usually a cold spell according to Victorian meteorologist, Alexander Buchan, so don’t go casting any clouts yet.