This blog series shares my experiences completing the year-long course in Practical Ethnobotany and Plant Identification with the Woodcraft School.
The second part of the Practical Ethnobotany Course was fantastic because we got to go to the coast and because we cooked up a wild food feast on the final day. I am definitely a better cook than I am a crafts person!
The first day was in the main teaching woodland in Sussex. After our assessment in the morning we focused on trees; learning key identification points, tree uses, history and folklore.
We started with Beech (Fagus sylvatica) and how it has torpedo-shaped buds and woody margins on the leaf, as well as smooth grey-green bark. It’s young leaves are edible otherwise there are a lot of other uses. Historically, beech bark was made into slabs for writing on! It’s nuts ca be made into a nut oil. It’s timber is dense, hard and durable and it is a good firewood. Beech has been used for kitchen surfaces and veneers, it’s also been pollarded and animals grazed underneath. Beech leaves can be slow to decompose, and a beech canopy is superb at blocking out light. Unfortunately, beech can suffer from Summer Beech Syndrome where limbs can drop off as a in a kind of self-pollarding effect where they will drop branches. The latest studies are indicating it could be potentially due to water movement in the tree and its weight distribution, but no one knows why with certainty.
We compared Beech with Southern Beech (Nothofagus spp.) which is as you guessed it, are from the Southern Hemisphere. It can be distinguished with its white scratches on its bark. Unfortunately southern beech blows over easily and is not as adapted to the wet and windy climate here.
Whitebeam (Sorbus aria), is a tough wood! Historically it was used for cart wheels due to its strength and flexibility, as well as for bow making. It normally grows on chalk soils and the berries can be edible when cooked. It can be identified partly by looking at the underneath of the leaf which should be white, it also has leaves off spurs.
Hazel (Corylus avellana), one of my favourites, has an edible nut. It’s also used for hurdles, basketry and bow drills. It grows as a multi-stemmed tree that is commonly coppiced. Very occasionally you can find one that isn’t, but they are rare! Their ID point is their pointed ‘drip tip’.
Downy Birch (Betula pubescens) is a pioneer species and grows a lot on heathland. It’s pretty short lived – you know, live fast, die young! But it makes a great leaf mulch which is important in its pioneering role. It’s a beautiful coppery colour in the shade and white in the sun. Apparently it can hybridise easily. It also has a very upright growth habit. Birches in general have a big variety of uses: carving, especially spoons, an oil, the bark can be peeled and used and it’s a great firelighter and can be used in bow drills. Birches can be tapped also. In Scandinavia they are used as a timber tree. Their craft uses are abundant too including in canoe making. John also told us an Ojibway legend about birch. Some witchy knowledge is that they were used for broom making.
While in the woods, Phil showed us how to make withies. These are super useful for things like A-frames, pot hangers and shelters. They were especially used historically to help move wood out of forested areas.
We then came onto the Oaks, starting with English Oak (Quercus robur). The best ID tip is that the leaf has no stalk, but it has a stalked acorn. Oaks are an amazing timber tree and have been used in house and ship building for centuries. They can also be coppiced. They are incredibly rot resistant due to their high tannin content, and with treatment the acorns are edible. The inner bark has been used for string making too.
John highlighted how landowners didn’t want to grow oaks because of how long they need to wait. He also shared that before power tools people would grow trees to the size we needed and foresters were actually encouraged to grow crooked trees for ships! It just shows you how many different factors shape the landscape.
Poplars (Populus spp.) are another fast growing tree. Black poplars are very rare (but we saw one at the Arboretum we visited). Aspens can be identified with their flattened leaf stalks and have been used to make arrows. There are also hybrid poplars with more arrow shaped leaves.
Poplar is a light but tough wood. Historically they’ve been used to make beds for carts and wagons, as well as shields due to their resistance to splintering. They are also flammable and are used in match making and fire by friction. They are also a source of wood for pallets. As a tree they need a lot of water. Their beautiful shimmering leaves and how they move aids transpiration.
We then headed back for lunch before heading out to an Arboretum in the afternoon.