Blackthorn is a member of the Prunus family, which includes many fruit trees including cherry, plum, damson, apricot, and peach and, like its relatives, produces its own sort of ‘fruit‘ – the sloe. This is a small blue/black berry containing a single hard stone. The taste is very sour but it is used in flavouring sloe gin – a very popular tipple! In early Spring, blackthorn bears small white flowers.
While blackthorn is widely regarded as the ultimate wood for walking sticks, suitable pieces are hard to come by. Here in Ireland, it tends to grow in low, dense thickets which can be all but impenetrable. These thickets rarely yield any useful material as the stems don’t usually grow much above a couple of feet tall before spreading into a tangled twiggy mess.
The sort of material suitable for stickmaking is more likely to come from solitary plants or small groups growing in thick woodland, where they have to compete for light with the surrounding trees. Even in these conditions, long straight stems of round cross-section can be difficult to find because blackthorn has an annoying habit of developing an oval cross-section. However, if this is not too pronounced it can be perfectly acceptable. The quality of the bark is also rather variable. On a good piece, it can be smooth and extremely tough but much blackthorn has closely spaced ridges running around the stem which makes the bark rough and prone to splitting.
It has been traditional in Ireland to hide the bark under a thick coat of of black paint. At Derryhick Sticks we prefer to enhance the colour of the bark which can vary from a bright red-brown to purple-black. With vigorous buffing and polishing, we can achieve a silky-smooth finish with great depth. Sometimes, though, a blackthorn shank will have damaged, loose or cracked bark, in which case we strip the bark revealing a very attractive cream coloured wood.
Because the thorns grow every couple of inches along the stem, a blackthorn shank in its natural state will always have a knobbly appearance. This attractive feature doesn’t have to make the stick awkward to handle… the knobbles can be rounded over and made smooth to the touch without losing the essential character of the material.
Being a much denser wood than, say, hazel, blackthorn takes much longer to dry out thoroughly. Hazel can be fully seasoned within 18 months whereas blackthorn can take up to seven years. So, realising some of the issues with blackthorn, (scarcity of supply, difficulty in accessing, duration of seasoning, etc.), it is easy to understand why blackthorn sticks are generally more expensive than other varieties.
Notwithstanding all of the difficulties associated with the species, the blackthorn walking stick is one of the most popular walking sticks available and an authentic Irish blackthorn walking stick is regarded worldwide as a valuable possession. However one needs to be very careful before buying an ‘authentic Irish blackthorn’ stick. There are many websites claiming that their sticks are ‘authentic Irish blackthorn’ when they are nothing of the kind. My advice is Bí Cúramach, i.e. Be Careful.