Practical Ethnobotany Course – Part Two, Day One – Arboretum Field Trip

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.

Practical Ethnobotany Course – Part Two, Day One – Trees

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.

Practical Ethnobotany Course – Woodland Plants, Day Three

This blog series shares my experiences completing the year-long course in Practical Ethnobotany and Plant Identification with the Woodcraft School.

On the third day of the course, we mostly stayed at the base in the woods and got on with our bark craft work. We learnt about sticking and how to add rims on our baskets. It was such a heavenly process to work with the bark. It also smelt delicious!

John talked to us about birch bark and how it is highly flammable but also very waterproof. It has even been used for roof tiles in Scotland. We also had a play with some conifer resin that can be made from spruce and pine, as well as some super-smelly birch tar which forms the basis of a glue. It’s very different to birch oil which can be painted on like creosote to line things like cabins and canoes.

Phil then introduced us to charcoal making, which is basically heating without oxygen. Willow was used traditionally but other woods can be too. Originally the process was used to capture oils rather than to make charcoal, however, charcoal production soon influence the shape of the landscape.

A couple more plants came to light too – Herb Bennet (Geum urbanum) also known as wood avens and blessed herb, which has an edible leaf as well as clove oil in its root. This makes it good for toothache and stomach ache too. Cleavers (Galium aparine) was the last plant of the weekend – everyone knows this sticky plant that you throw around at school. I normally make it into juice and freeze it at home, as its a great lymphatic tonic.

Finally, we finished the three-days with a recap of what’s expected in our assessments, as well as how we will communicate through the course. Overall it was an exhausting but super enjoyable few days and I learnt loads!

Practical Ethnobotany Course – Woodland Plants, Day Two

This blog series shares my experiences completing the year-long course in Practical Ethnobotany and Plant Identification with the Woodcraft School.

Day two brought more adventures in the woods. Plants that I have seen for years but never known much about were coming alive to me. John introduced us to Wood Sage (Teucrium scorodonia) and Tormentil (Potentilla erecta) a strong astringent. We tasted sweet blackberry tips and learnt the difference between strawberry and barren strawberry (the leaf tip!). One of my favourites was Ground Ivy (Glechoma hederacea), affectionately known as ‘snot buster’ for its effect on clearing the sinuses. It’s also been used to flavour ales and for liver health. Herb Robert (Geranium robertianum) was another edible and medicinal plant we were introduced to. I must admit, it’s not my favourite but learning about its properties on helping with bleeding as a ‘carpenter’s herb’ did make me feel more affectionate towards it!

We also learned some lore about Lords and Ladies (Arum maculatum) also known as ‘jack in the pulpit’ and ‘cuckoo-pint’. The root used to be used as a starch source for stiffening clothes, but it was so caustic on the hands that it damaged the health of laundry workers. It has a cunning trick of trapping flies for pollination and then releasing them.

We then moved down towards the field edges and roadsides, coming across Dandelion (Taraxacum officinalis), probably my favourite medicinal plant in the world! We also met Lady’s Smock (Cardamine pratensis) which has a subtle peppery taste. Sweet Woodruff (Galium odoratum) was used as a strewing herb. White Dead Nettle (Lamium album), which is edible, had been affectionately called fairy shoes, my Grandma who passed away this winter would have loved to know that. Yellow archangel (Lamium galeobdolon) has the same properties too.

We could not forget Ribwort Plantain (Plantago lanceolata) with its amazing ability to soothe bites and stings, as well as having edible roots and seeds. It’s one of the herbs tattooed on my sleeve! As well as Sweet Violets (Viola odorata) and Dog Violets (Viola riviniana) that is a lot smaller in terms of growth habit. We found loads of Docks (Rumex spp.) which can be hard to ID but have a great edible root. Common Sorrel has also been used a lot in soups for its lemony flavour. Greater stitchwort (Stellaria holostea) was also introduced and we could see its soapy qualities due to its saponin content! On the water’s edge was some Water mint (Mentha aquatica) which tasted delicious too.

No one can forget Jack by the Hedge (Alliaria petiolata) or Hedge Garlic either, for its delicious garlic flavour that brings any wild-food dish to life. It was great to be able to get to know more about Woundwort (Stachys sylvatica) which also has an astringent action and can be used in a poultice to stop bleeding. We also had a nibble at some young beech leaves!

Practical Ethnobotany Course – Woodland Plants, Day One

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!