Last week, I had the pleasure of attending the first part of a year-long course in Practical Ethnobotany and Plant Identification with the Woodcraft School.
I have to admit – I was really nervous. My unpredictable health and chronic pain is a huge barrier to learning and what I was getting myself into feeling like quite a mystery. Even though I was totally shattered by day three, the days spent learning in the woods were amazing.
The first part of the morning covered the inevitable practicalities and how the course is structured, as well as expectations for the assessments. Ethnobotany is all about learning about the uses of plants and trees. This includes their edible, medical and craft uses, as well as the folklore and the historical relationship humans have with plants. It totally fascinates me!
We then dived straight into learning about uses of tree bark. John Ryder, the main teacher, is an experienced woodsman. He shared with us his experiments with native trees and which ones have bark that is pliable enough. He described how in a British climate the birch bark so commonly used in Scandinavia is not always thick enough. He has worked regularly with many trees including sycamore, conifers, chestnut, cedar, willow, cherry, elm, willow, oak and lime bark. A lot of his experiments have been based on reading how indigenous peoples on the north-west coast of occupied US used barks, especially from Western red cedar, which is a sacred tree and called the ‘tree of life’ due to its diverse uses.
We learned about the basics of weaving and folding and how bark is worked through gentle wetting so that its dry enough to bend without breaking but not too wet that it will shrink. He showed us these beautiful berry baskets. All the weaving reminded me of baskets I used as a child in Sri Lanka. We also learned about fibres and cordage and also how they can be used for fire lighting and clothing.
Phil from the Woodcraft School then talked to us about safe tool use, which is always important in the woods! We then went out on a plant walk – I must admit, my favourite part of each day on the course. John introduced us to ancient woodland indicator plants. The reason certain plants indicate in this way is that of the time it takes for them to move and reproduce – therefore the time it takes them to colonise new areas can be incredibly slow, hence an indicator of age. Ancient woodland is classified as 400 years or older, and there is also semi-ancient woodlands, plantations and secondary woodlands.
Some of the indicator plants we learned about included: Dog’s mercury (Mercukialis perennis), Wood anemone (Anenome memorosa) and Sanicle (Sanicula europaea).
We then came to a little clearing. The open canopy and access to sun gave life to a diversity of plants. Foxglove (Digitalis purpurea) is a pioneer plant (colonising open ground). We also saw the beautiful Betony (Betonica officinalis), one of my favourite plants – it is a nerve tonic and helps reduce anxiety. I have used it for years as part of my PMT mixes. We learnt about the different kinds of bluebell and the threats to native populations from the Spanish bluebells (Hyacinthoides hispanica).
A new plant for me was Bugle (Ajuga reptant), it has astringent properties and has been used to slow bleeding and help with sore throats. Wood spurge (Euphorbia amygdaloides), is an irritant and has historically had a reputation of curing worts! We also came across a beautiful Marsh Thistle (Cirsium palustre). All thistle roots are edible and because of their biennial nature, it’s best to harvest them at the end of the first year or beginning of the second. The Wood Sorrel (Oxalis acetosella) was delicious – a sweet apple-lemon like taste. You can’t eat too much of them though because of the oxalic acid. We also came across lots of primroses (Primula vulgaris), which I learnt are also edible! Not forgetting Hairy Bittercress (Cardimine hirsuta) and it’s peppery taste.
We then learnt about two starch sources – pignuts (Conopodium majus) were so much fun to dig out. Lesser Celandine (Ficaria verna) also have edible roots and have historically been known as ‘Pilewort’ for you guessed it, allegedly treating piles.
At the end of our plant walk we coppiced some hazel ready to make some baskets!