NINE NATIVE BRITISH TREES
If you don’t know your ash from your alder, this tree-spotter’s guide reveals the qualities, looks and lore of some of our oldest woodland species
Impressively large, ancient and strong, the oak has long been considered sacred by cultures from the ancient Greeks and Romans to the Norsemen and the Druids. Its spreading canopy and sturdy, twisted limbs make it ideal for boatbuilding: around 30,000 oak trees – more than 800 acres of forest – were felled for the Navy during Elizabeth I’s reign (1558–1603) alone.
The alder has an affinity with water and is often found growing alongside rivers and canals, and supporting buildings or structures which stand in water (bridges, jetties; much of Venice), since the wood lasts indefinitely when submerged. Perhaps surprisingly, it also burns well and makes a superior charcoal, the gunpowder from which was said to add 50 yards’ range to a ship’s cannon.
The overlapping branches of a beech tree produce a shade so dense that little grows beneath it, with the notable exception of truffles, which attract hunters with their dogs or pigs come the autumn. The timber is richly coloured and typically used in writing surfaces (as it is easily engraved), as well as parquet flooring and furniture, as it bends well under steam.
Fresh green hazelnuts are one of autumn’s finest hedgerow treats (see page 38), but this plant has many other benefits, too. Fast-growing and multistemmed, it is an ideal candidate for coppicing, and the resulting flexible stems have long been woven into hurdles (a type of fencing) and baskets. Forked hazel sticks are also traditionally used for water divining.
Birch is often associated with new life and fertility, partly because its ability to grow on poor soils makes it a primary coloniser, and partly because it comes into leaf early in the year. It is also strongly associated with purification: besoms made of birch twigs were used to sweep out spirits, and still today Baltic and Russian saunas often provide birch twigs with which to beat the body.
Some say hornbeam got its name from its use in oxen yokes (ie, running between the horns); others that it derives from its likeness to horn. Either way, everyone agrees that this is one of the strongest woods there is, making it ideal for chopping boards, coach wheels, and cogs and gear pegs in machinery. Spot it by its beech-shaped, double-toothed leaves.
Easily identified by its coalblack buds (sometimes likened to dirty fingernails), and bunches of winged seeds known as keys that hang from its winter branches, ash trees can be male, female or both and can change gender from year to year. Valued for its elasticity and strength, ash wood is also much in demand as a firewood, thanks to its ability to burn even when green.
More often seen as an impenetrable bush, the blackthorn’s spiny shoots make it an excellent boundary hedge, offering a haven for birds and wildlife while deterring intruders and grazers. The creamy-white flowers appear in late winter or early spring, well before the leaves, while its fruits, purple sloes, ripen after the first frosts of autumn and supply the sloe in sloe gin.
The yew has a strong association with death. It is often found in churchyards (though no one is really sure why); all parts of it are toxic (apart from the red flesh of its arils) and its wood was used to make the longbows that helped the English defeat the French at the Battle of Agincourt. More recently though, chemicals in its needles have been found to help treat cancer.