Which is which ?

Some sayings stick in your mind. When I was a schoolboy, studying for my geography ‘O’ level, I struggled to remember in which order the Great Lakes of North America ran. This was important because I was pretty sure I would have to name them in the forthcoming exam.  I needn’t have worried. My geography teacher had an easy solution. “All you need to do is recite this little saying ‘Some men hate eating onions’”, which he explained, if you take the first letters, gives you Superior, Michigan, Huron, Erie and Ontario running west to east.

Blackthorn - 4

Blackthorn blossom

If, like me, you wonder about the difference between hawthorn and blackthorn then there is an equally easy way to remember which is which. Blackthorn blossoms before its leaves show, whereas hawthorn flowers after its leaves have opened.


Blackthorn - 1Both are great sources of food for pollinators. Blackthorn generally flowers first, and is a welcome and wonderful early source of nectar and pollen for emerging bumblebees. Solitary bees and honey bees will join the feasting too and, with hawthorn not too far behind in the calendar, these popular hedgerow shrubs serve our pollinators particularly well.

Hedgerows can offer more than food for pollinators, their root systems are popular nesting sites for mice, and abandoned rodent holes and crevices between the roots can be appealing sites for bumblebees to set up home.

Iain Macdonald - River Tay flowers - 5

A hawthorn bush on the banks of the River Tay

Of course, blackthorn and hawthorn are good for nature in general. They provide excellent safe nesting sites for a variety of birds and act as corridors which small mammals and birds can use to move cautiously across the countryside. Pollination transforms the flowers into fruit and this in turn is a valuable autumn food source for many birds. Humans too have exploited these shrubs. The sloes (‘sloeberries’) of the blackthorn are synonymous with gins and jams, whilst the hawthorn was traditionally the way in which many fields were separated.

Autumn will see blackthorn and hawthorn fruiting. Their berries are distinctively different. Alas I don’t have an equivalent of the neat ‘Some men hate eating onions’ to give you, but given that the hawthorn berries are bright red, unlike the bluey-black sloe fruits, I don’t suspect there is quite the same need.

Iain Macdonald - River Tay flowers - 2

Hawthorn blossom