Blog | 12 really useful trees

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TSA TREE WEEK

To help you learn more about common UK trees, guest blogger Paul Kirtley of Frontier Bushcraft takes a look at 12 really useful species that can be utilised in a variety of ways, from woodcraft and camping to bushcraft and survival situations. 

British woodland harbours a seemingly vast array of tree species.  Some are native, others were introduced for ornament or economic value. For those who are interested in their multitude of uses, where should you start? Which are useful trees to know?  And how can you identify them? 

To get you started here are 12 common and useful trees you are likely to encounter on your woodland wanderings...

Silver Birch

Often perceived as a weed, this rapidly growing pioneer species is a friend of the woodsman or woodswoman and can fulfil many needs.  It’s easy to recognise by its distinctive silvery bark and matchstick-thin twigs with a purple-burgundy sheen to them. Its leaves are relatively small, shiny and arrowhead-shaped. A mature tree in leaf can resemble a fizzy drink squirting from a bottle.

Bushcraft and survival uses:

  • Birch bark is one of nature’s best firelighters, due to its high natural oil content;
  • The leaves contain saponins, a natural soap;
  • The wood carves easily to make spoons and other utensils.

Birch bark
Birch bark

Birch leaves
Birch leaves

Hazel

Hazel is a common tree of waysides and hedgerows. Historically it has also been coppiced in various parts of the UK and naturally forms an understorey. Hazel has a shrub-like habit and often has multiple stems, which unobstructed will grow pretty straight. The bark is quite smooth and often has some sheen to it. While the buds are small and nondescript, the leaves are distinctive, being racket-shaped with a defined point and a rough texture. Its fruits – hazelnuts – are also well known and easily identified.

Bushcraft and survival uses:

  • Straight poles for making anything from tent pegs to camp gadgets;
  • An excellent source of withies for strong bindings;
  • Edible nuts.

Stands of Hazel growing by the side of a track
Stands of Hazel growing by the side of a track

Hazel leaf
Hazel leaf

Common Alder

Alder is a common tree of damp ground, often growing besides streams, rivers and ponds.  It grows quite straight and tall. Its bark is rough and fissured. Its leaves are dark green, relatively smooth and racket-shaped but lack the point of hazel leaves.  Key things to look out for are its small cones (Alders are the only broad-leaved tree to have them) and its mauve buds.

Bushcraft and survival uses:

  • Friction fire-lighting;
  • A good indicator of water nearby;
  • Wood for smoking meat and fish.

Alder leaf
Alder leaf

The rough bark of a Common Alder
The rough bark of a Common Alder

Goat Willow

Like Alder, Willows also tend to grow in damp places. There are 18 native species of willow and they tend to hybridise, so can be difficult to identify.  One of the easier species to spot is Goat Willow.  Also known as Pussy Willow or Great Sallow, this species has very distinctive furry-looking flowers, or catkins, in the spring. These sprout from a simple, quite large, chestnut-brown bud, which is also easy to recognise.  Another distinctive feature of Goat Willow is the diamond shape pattern found on the bark of younger trees. 

Bushcraft and survival uses:

  • Friction fire-lighting;
  • Bark contains a natural form of aspirin;
  • Inner bark for cordage.

Male catkin of the Goat Willow
Male catkin of the Goat Willow

Distinctive diamond pattern
Distinctive diamond patterned bark

Limes

Lime trees used to be far more common than they are now.  The old English name Linden hints at the common etymology of the word ‘line’; the inner bark, or bast, of lime trees was an important source of fibres for cordage and rope making. Keep an eye out for these lovely trees though; they are present in mainland Britain from the south of England to Scotland. Different members of this family have different sized leaves but they all have a similar shape – not dissimilar to Hazel but with a more flimsy, smoother feel.  At the base of mature lime trees there are often many sprouts, sometimes so much so that you can’t see the trunk.  Where you can see the trunk, the bark remains smooth until the trees are quite large.

Bushcraft and survival uses:

  • Inner bark for cordage;
  • Friction fire-lighting;
  • Young leaves are edible.

Lime leaves
Lime leaves

Lime trunks with smooth bark and suckers
Lime trunks with smooth bark and suckers

Sycamore

Sycamore is another tree that is considered a weed due to its habit of colonisation and fast growth. Related to the Maples, it does have some uses.  Like its relatives, Sycamore is easy to recognise from its leaf shape. Its buds are also distinctive, being quite large, green and egg-shaped with scales in opposite pairs. Even more distinctive are its wing nut shaped seeds. Sycamore bark starts smooth and stays this way until trees are quite mature, when it becomes cracked and scaly.

Bushcraft and survival uses:

  • Friction fire-lighting;
  • The wood is durable yet light – excellent for carving utensils.

Sycamore leaf
Sycamore leaf

Sycamore seeds
Sycamore seeds

Common Ash

Ash is an integral part of the fabric of much of our woodland. These trees are also amongst the tallest.  You’ll look up the grey trunk of relatively modest diameter and be surprised how far up it goes. As the trees become older, the bark becomes greyer and more cracked. Its branches finish with upturned shoots, terminated with sooty-black buds – a key identification feature. The leaves of Ash are compound leaves made up of numerous (usually 4 to 5) opposite pairs of leaflets and one terminal leaflet. Its seeds are flattened keys, which form in dense clusters.

Bushcraft and survival uses:

  • Excellent firewood;
  • Ideal for making tool handles;
  • Making bows.

Ash leaves
Ash leaves

Ash bark, starting to develop fissures
Ash bark, starting to develop fissures

Rowan

Rowan, or Mountain Ash, is a hardy tree that can withstand isolation and exposed conditions.  It is also at home deep in the forest, where it can grow into a sizeable tree. Showing stunning sprays of white flowers in the spring, Rowan develops drooping bunches of pillar-box-red berries by late summer.  While bitter and astringent raw, their flavour is much improved by cooking. Rowan has a similar compound leaf to Common Ash, but with a greater number of smaller leaflets that are more parallel-sided and serrated.

Bushcraft and survival uses:

  • Rowan berries can be made into Rowan jelly;
  • Harder to carve than, say, Birch but very durable items result;
  • Poor firewood – avoid!

 The smooth, grey bark of Rowan often has a bit of a shine to it
The smooth, grey bark of Rowan often has a bit of a shine to it.

Rowan berries and leaves
Rowan berries and leaves

Sweet Chestnut

If you live in the north of the UK, it’s likely you’ll be unfamiliar with this species.  In the South East, however, it is abundant. Coppiced for centuries this was an important tree for uses from charcoal to gunpowder to hop poles.  Wherever you live, you’re likely familiar with the nuts of the tree, which are particularly popular around Christmas. Most commonly seen in its multi-boled coppiced form, if allowed to grow unmolested Sweet Chestnut grows into a tree of similar stature to an English Oak. It has distinctive large, saw-toothed leaves and exceedingly prickly nut cases.

Bushcraft and survival uses:

  • Edible nuts;
  • Bark for containers;
  • Inner bark makes good tinder.

A typical coppiced Sweet Chestnut.
A typical coppiced Sweet Chestnut.

Sweet Chestnut leaves and spiky nut casings.
Sweet Chestnut leaves and spiky nut casings.

Hawthorn

As its name suggests, this is another prickly character.  A mainstay of many rural fence lines, the thorns form a natural deterrent to livestock. Its brilliant white flourish of blossom in late spring gives rise to another of its common names, 'May'. Hawthorn has distinctive, deeply lobed leaves.  In the late summer it forms many bright red berries, which resemble small rose hips. The blossom and leaves are edible in spring, as are the berries later in the year. The haws are bland and mealy though and are much improved by turning them into fruit leather.

Bushcraft and survival uses:

  • Very good firewood;
  • Edible leaves, flowers and berries;
  • Thorns for making fish-hooks.

Hawthorn
Hawthorn

Hawthorn berries
Hawthorn berries and leaves.

Oaks

English Oak and Sessile Oak are some of the most massive trees in our landscape.

Solid and strong, they have deeply fissured bark and branches that spread wide.  When one of these dies off, the heartwood is some of the best firewood in the forest, creating excellent embers for roasting food. Both these species of Oak have similar lobed leaves and – as with all the 500 species of Oak – form acorns.  These have formed a valuable source of food for various First Nations peoples and are thought to have provided an important caloric staple to our ancestors here. They do, however, require some processing.

Bushcraft and survival uses:

  • Excellent firewood;
  • Edible nuts;
  • Bark contains tannin (used for tanning hides).

Oaks form massive trees
Oaks form massive trees.

Oak leaves and acorns
Acorns and Oak leaves.

Beech

Like Oaks, Beech trees can grow to be very large indeed. The wood is not as strong, however, and is prone to infection, so you’ll often find large Beeches in the process of falling apart. Never camp underneath a Beech tree, for this reason. However, dropped limbs provide another very good source of firewood.  Beech coals are also very good for roasting food over. In the spring, brand new, light green Beech leaves are edible for a little while after they emerge from the buds. They are surprisingly tasty. The buds themselves are distinctive, slender and pointed with obvious scales. Over the summer, Beech masts form and these are also edible (there’s a knack to getting into them). You can snack on them raw but you get more nutritional value from them cooked.

Bushcraft and survival uses:

  • Edible nuts;
  • Edible leaves;
  • Very good firewood.

Young Beech leaves
Young Beech leaves.

Older Beech leaves and Beechnuts
Older Beech leaves and beechnuts.

Scots Pine

Scots Pine is another majestic tree if it is allowed to be – nowhere more so than in the remnants of the ancient Caledonian forests.  Common and widespread, not only in the UK but right around the Northern Hemisphere, like Silver Birch this is a very useful tree to know, providing many things to a knowledgeable and able woodsperson. Scots Pine can be differentiated from other conifers by its nature to spread more like a broad-leaved tree. Also, from around a third of the way up the trunk of a mature tree you’ll normally see an orange tint to the bark. The bark is flaky from quite a young age. Needles are in pairs.

Bushcraft & Survival Uses:

  • Source of Vitamin C – try making pine needle tea;
  • Roots for bindings;
  • Turpentine-infused wood for making feathersticks.

Caledonian Pine
Caledonian Pine

Scots Pine
Scots Pine needles

The 12 species and two or three uses of each described above represent just a fraction of the huge number of uses the varied species of our woodlands have at different times of the year. 

Tree identification 

Learning to identify trees can be daunting at first, particularly at this time of year as deciduous trees lose their leaves. Characteristics such as leaf shapes and the appearance and texture of bark are still useful means of identifying particular species, however. Once you do get to know them, trees seem like friends, particularly when they can help you out in so many ways.

It’s my belief that the more you know and understand the usefulness of different species of tree, then the more you will value our trees and our woodland as a whole. 

Paul Kirtley is an award-winning bushcraft instructor who owns and runs Frontier Bushcraft, a leading provider of wilderness skills training. 

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