This blog series shares my experiences completing the year-long course in Practical Ethnobotany and Plant Identification with the Woodcraft School.
After lunch we headed out to the Cowdry Estate’s Arboretum. An arboretum is a botanical collection dedicated to trees. It’s often where the rich would collect specimens from around the world to showcase their status and connection to empire. Nowadays, a lot of them are publicly owned and managed by trusts.
Wild Cherry (Prunus avium) was one of the first trees we came across. It is one of two native cherries to Britain. It has glands on the base of the leaf and is not white and silver all the way round. It also exudes a kind of gum. Wild Cherry has a very flammable bark, it can also be selected for timber. It was used for household items that would hold water well e.g. Cups. It also has an edible fruit (if the birds don’t get to them all first).
Bird Cherry (Prunus padus) in comparison is more shrubby looking and rare. I learnt it’s commonly found on the welsh borders which warmed my heart a little as it’s where a lot of my family and ancestors are from.
London Plane (Platanus × acerifolia) has a very dense heavy wood. It has incredible tolerance to pollution, hence its planting in urban areas. Sadly however, many people are allergic to the seed heads which tiny hairs can be very irritating.
The Wild Service Tree (Sorbus torminalis) is one of our native sorbus trees. It is an ancient woodland indicator. It has been used to make chequers!
Next up was Hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna), of course one of my favourite medicinals. I even have it tattooed on me! It’s leaves contain flavonoids which support the heart, and its flowers and berries are both used medicinally for heart complaints, as well as grief. One of its folk names is bread and cheese, something I never knew! It can also be used for firewood and you can make fruit leathers from it too – worth trying this autumn for sure. To help distinguish the Midland Hawthorn, we learned it has no lobes as well as more flowers that are borne on a cluster.
We then came across some huge Lime Trees. Common lime (Tilia × europaea) is actually a hybrid between small and large leaved lime. The Small leaved Lime (Tilia cordata) has heart shaped leaves. They have white hairs on the leaf axils too.
Limes have tasty edible young leaves. The flower is sophorific too and is used medicinally. The suckers are a great source of cordage. It can also be used for fire by friction. The bark is also naturally retted and you can find bits of it hanging in the tree sometimes! John shared an amazing fact about Westonbirt Arboretum where they dated this ring of stems they found and they were 3000 years old!!
Moving up the hill, John introduced to this absolutely beautiful Oak (Sessile oak – Quercus petraea), sadly called the ‘Queen Elizabeth Oak’! It was so stunning and hollow, making such fantastic wildlife habitat also for insects and other critters.
We then came to potentially the largest chestnut (Castanea sativa) tree I’d ever seen. John shared how chestnut is commonly used for fencing and walking sticks, because it doesn’t rot quickly in the ground. It also makes a good tinder, as well as having edible nuts. It also has anti microbial properties.
A huge Goat Willow (Salix caprea) then caught our attention. Willows share the same properties in terms of medicine and containing xxx acid, what is used for aspirin. John shared that goat willow can be used in bow drill making, as well as for withies and dying bark.
On our way out, we passed a Rowan Tree (Sorbus aucuparia). I know these as Mountain Ash after living in the valleys in South Wales. John highlighted how they are an acid lover and grow well on poor soils. They are also great for withies and bows and have an edible fruit when cooked.
Passing a Horse Chestnut (Aesculus hippocastanum), John described how they used to use the wood to make milk buckets out of it, and it is also good for bow drills. Despite his best frothing attempts, he reassured us the leaves do contain a lot of saponins! We also shared some knowledge about their traditional medicinal usage mostly in topical applications including treating varicose veins.
We then saw a rare native Black Poplar (Populus nigra) with its eye-catting triangular leaves. Next to the water, our last tree of the day was an Alder tree (Alnus glutinosa). Its affinity with water means the wood has been used for building in wet ground, such as piers. It was also used in gunpowder manufacturing and charcoal production. You can get a salmon pink dye from the bark. The inner bark has also been used as a tooth powder!
Overall, it was a great afternoon seeing some impressive trees and learning about their diverse uses.