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

The Simple Things - - THINK -


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.

Sil­ver birch

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.

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