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how to identify native conifers UK

Which Conifer Trees Are Native to Britain?

Are you confused by conifers and flummoxed by firs? In this article you’re going to get to know the native conifer trees of Britain & Ireland and learn the top five key features you need to look for so that you can easily recognise them in the countryside and tell them apart from the many non-native conifers you may find.

Conifers are not rare in this country, you can find them everywhere. As a general rule, they are also evergreen (though there is an exception, the Larch) so they hang on to their foliage right through our winter. With the majority of our native trees being broadleaves, losing their leaves in autumn, this makes a conifer easy to spot from a mile off.

But are you looking at one of our native conifer trees or is it one of the many non-native species which have been introduced to this country?

I am hosting an online workshop How To Identify Conifers where I will break down the key features of both our native and common non-native conifers. So, if you are perplexed by pines or stumped by spruce then you should join me for that.

 

What is a Conifer?

Conifers are a very old group of trees that includes firs, cedars, cypresses, junipers, kauri, larches, pines, hemlocks, redwoods, spruces and yews. As a rule, conifers bare cones, though some don’t look much like cones as we think of them. The other key feature they share is they have very small leaves in the form of needles or scales.

With the exception of some Scots Pine in Scotland and a few Yew woodlands, you will not comes across a natural forest of conifer trees in the UK and Ireland. They are most likely planted non-native species, usually for timber production or as a shelter-belt woodland.

When we picture a conifer, we usually have a Christmas tree in mind, which is typically a Spruce. But there’s more to conifers than simply this conical cone-baring form. Especially when it comes to our own natives.

how to identify conifers

Above: Conifers can come in a variety of weird and wonderful forms.

 

How Many Native Conifers Do We Have in the UK & Ireland?

Well the good news here is that we have only three native conifers. By native, we mean a species which have been naturally present on these isles since the last Ice Age and before we became disconnected from the continent. Our three native conifers are Scots Pine, Juniper and Yew.

Take a trip around the globe and you could be dealing with up to 800 conifer species. So, we’re quite lucky in the UK & Ireland that we only have three to tackle.

It’s not just the trees featured in this article that you could well see on your country walk though. There are several species and families of conifer trees that are very commonly planted here, either for forestry or in country estates and parks for their sheer beauty. You’d be forgiven for thinking that Larch, Spruce, Firs and Hemlock could be part of the natural make of our landscape but they are all guests from exotic lands.

So, let’s get to know our three natives and pick out the key identifying features you need to look for.

 

Scots Pine (Pinus sylvestris)

There are several pines which has been introduced to this country including the Corsican Pine (Pinus nigra var. maritima) and Lodgepole Pine (Pinus contora ssp. latifolia) to name a couple, but we have only one native and the clue is in the name, Scots Pine. However, don’t be fooled, this tree isn’t found only in Scotland, you could see it anywhere. In its natural range though it does favour uplands and poor soils. The oldest Scots Pine in the UK can be found in Scotland in the Caledonian Forest.

how to identify scots pine - pinus sylvestris

Left: Needles are in pairs, joined at their base. Middle: A ripe cone, still closed. Right: A mature cone having dropped its seeds.

Before we get into the specific details of Scots Pine, it’s worth mentioning a feature that is unique to pines. If you follow a single pine needle back to its base, where it joins the twig, you will discover it is joined to one or more other needles. Pine needles come in twos, threes or fives. This is important because conifers like spruce have needles which are attached singly to the twig.

I was told this handy little rhyme by Dave Watson of Woodland Survival Crafts to help me remember this rule; “If it’s a pair, it’s a pine, but not all pines are pairs.” By using this rhyme we can eliminate other families of conifers and know that we are looking at a pine. So, that leads to the question, how do we know it’s a Scots Pine?

To identify the Scots Pine there’s a few key features to look for:

  1. Needles come in pairs, joined at their base to the twig. Needles are approx 5 to 7.5cm in length. This is important as a commonly planted non-native, the Corsican Pine, also has needles in pairs, but they are significantly longer. Corsican Pine needles can grow to 15cm long.
  2. Needles often have a twist to them.
  3. Mature bark is a warm brown to orange colour with a craggy character. Also, look for a band of orange on the main trunk about a third to two-thirds up the tree. This is especially visible in clear sunlight.
  4. Pine cones. These are the typical cones used for Christmas decorations that you are probably familiar with. They take two years to mature. Cones are green and conical in their first year on the branch. In their second year they become more rounded and brown-grey in colour.
  5. Mature trees have a habit of spreading  and flattening out in their crown, so losing the “Christmas tree” conical shape we think of when picturing a conifer.

 

 

how to identify scots pine - pinus sylvestris

Left: Look for an orange band on the trunk some way up the tree. Middle: Bark is craggy and covered in plates. Right: The crown of mature trees flatten out.

 

Juniper (Juniperus communis)

You might know this tree best from its berries, or rather what’s its berries are used to flavour… gin.

This is by far the least common of our three native conifers. It is mostly a tree of upland areas, but you can find it formally planted in country estate gardens where it can be trimmed to shape. It’s worth noting though that Juniper is probably the most widespread tree species in the world, found from the Arctic to the Mediterranean.

how to identify juniper - juniperus communis

Left: Typically a low-growing and spreading tree. Middle: Ripe berries are blue to black in colour. Right: Needles grow in threes. They are very spiky.

In the UK, Juniper tends to favour chalk and limestone sites.

To identify Juniper you’re looking for the following things:

  1. Typically a low-growing, sprawling shrub of a tree. Though not always.
  2. Needles are small (up to 2cm long), very spiky to touch and they grow in threes.
  3. The mature bark is a reddish-brown colour which has a peeling habit.
  4. Berries. When mature they are dark blue/black. They are small and spherical. When young they are green in colour. You will only find them on the female trees. So, this feature can be a little unreliable.
  5. Crush a berry between you fingers, it will smell of gin. This also works with the twigs & foliage, but be careful, it’s spiky!

The ripe fruit of the female Juniper are generally called berries, but they are actually classed as cones.

There are several cultivated varieties of Juniper which you can pick up in your local garden centre.

how to identify juniper - juniperus communis

Left: Bark is reddish-brown and peeling. Middle: Young berries are blue/green. Right: Juniper can be an upright, single-trunked tree, but this is less common.

 

Yew (Taxus baccata)

We can lay claim to some of the most spectacular Yew trees in the world, as they are the oldest living organisms in the UK. It’s thought that some are as old as five thousand years! There is hot debate as to which is the oldest living Yew, but the most likely candidates, in my opinion, are in Wales.

how to identify yew - taxus baccata

Left: Yews are often found in churchayrds. Middle: Needles are soft to touch. Right: Bark is patchy with reds, browns & purples.

You are most likely to find a Yew in your local churchyard, looming over the gravestones. Many of these trees predate the church they are paired with.

To identify the Yew tree you’re looking for a few key things:

  1. Glossy needles are up to 4cm long. They are arranged flat, along green twigs.
  2. The needles are soft to the touch, unlike spikier spruce trees.
  3. The mature bark of Yew is quite beautiful. Look for red-brown bark with a peeling habit that can show patches of oranges, purples and blood red. When wet, patches of the bark can look like they’re bleeding.
  4. The bright pink/red oval berries of the Yew are very different from anything else you’ll find on a conifer. You will only find these on female trees, so don’t rely on this alone.
  5. Mature trees will typically have more than one stem, growing from the base.

Yew trees don’t have cones. This makes them easy to distinguish from pine, spruce and fir.

how to identify yew - taxus baccata

Left: Pink/red berries are unmistakable. Middle: Needles arranged flat, on green twigs. Right: Bark is peeling and full of character.

 

Discover More About Trees

It can be so interesting to really look in to the details of our native trees and notice the changes that they undergo throughout the four seasons. That’s just what I’ve created for my FREE introductory online course called Kickstart Your Tree ID Skills. Here you will find a whole host of resources to take you from clueless to confident on your way to really knowing your trees.

REGISTER FOR THE FREE COURSE HERE

kickstart your tree id skills, free online course

When you sign up to this free mini-course you’ll be identifying common trees with video tutorials and photo galleries at your fingertips. Start your journey to becoming a fully fledged Tree Expert today. The course includes Tree ID Cheat Sheets which you can download and take outdoors with you.

“I’ve been frustrated for so long trying to learn my trees myself and haven’t gotten far. This course answered everything and has seriously upped my game.” Dr. Patrick Alexander

 

Happy tree hunting folks.

James

free winter tree id guide to UK & Ireland

FREE Winter Tree ID Guide

Many of us might well be able to spot an oak in winter by looking for fallen acorns or the familiar leaves, but could you tell me the difference between blackthorn and hawthorn in winter just by looking at the buds? Or do you know which trees give themselves away in winter by their bark? We might be able to identify trees in summer when their leaves are on but winter is a whole different ball game.

For anyone looking to improve their tree identification skills winter provides us with many distinctive signs such as buds, bark, twigs and fallen leaf litter that we can use to recognise our native and common tree species. The clues are all there if you know how to look.

In this blog I’ll introduce you to some of clues to look out for in winter and break down the differences between common trees which often get confused. You can get outdoors and spot these clues for yourself with a free download I’ve created; Winter Trees Guide, which you can get your hands on just below.

free winter tree id guide to download

By the way, if you love trees, but struggle to tell one species from another, then you could enrol in my FREE Tree Identification Course online. More details can be found at the end of the article.

 

Bud Arrangement: The BIG Giveaway

One of the first things you can ask a tree when you are trying to identify it in winter is this; “Are the buds arranged alternately or in opposite pairs?”

This is absolutely key to nailing the species of tree as once you’ve answered that question it allows you to eliminate a whole bunch of species from your enquiry.

The majority of native tree species in Britain have their buds arranged alternately along the branch.

One last thing to remember; it’s important to select a young healthy twig to answer this question because as a branch matures it will often self-select the healthiest of the twigs to grow on and will drop it’s near partner. So, you can be looking at an older branch and thinking that they definitely don’t grow in opposite pairs, but then on closer inspection you might well notice the old scar left over from where it’s opposite equivalent was self-selected to be dropped by the tree in favour of it’s partner.

When you become practised at this you will begin to start noticing the bud arrangement from a distance, as you look at the form of tree. This is when tree identification can become very satisfying and you can really start showing off.

In the Free Winter Tree ID Guide I’ve grouped alternate budding trees separate from opposite budding trees for easy reference.

 

Blackthorn vs. Hawthorn

Let’s take two very common trees which often get confused. Not only are their names similar, but they also are thorny, shrubby trees which populate our hedgerows, often growing side by side.

To help confuse matters both these species have alternate buds and the buds are very small and grow in cluster at the end of the twig. So, we need to look at other clues to help us out.

hawthorn and blackthorn winter tree identification

Above: Blackthorn (Prunus spinosa) on the left, Hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna) on the right. The difference is clear.

The first thing to look for is leaf litter below the tree. As you can see from the picture, the leaves shapes are very different. However, this method is unreliable when you’re looking at a dense hedgerow and the two species are intertwined. How can you tell which tree the leaf has fallen from? Luckily, there are other signs we can go to also.

identifying blackthorn and hawthorn in winter

Above: Blackthorn on the left, Hawthorn on the right. Bark is a feature you can use year round to identify a tree.

Looking at the bark is going to be useful here as, like the leaf litter, they are very different. The bark of blackthorn, as its name suggests, is very dark and seems to soak up the light. It is also generally quite smooth. The bark of hawthorn is much more grey to brown and fissures readily, being much more craggy.

As well as the bark you can look at the thorns, which typically you will see a lot more of on blackthorn than you will compared to hawthorn. The last sign to help us here is the autumn fruits, which can often be found still hanging on in winter.

comparing blackthorn and hawthorn in winter

Above: On the left, Blackthorn can hang on to a few withered & dried sloes in winter. On the right, hawthorns often has smaller, deep red berries on show in winter.

The autumn fruit of blackthorn is the sloe. A good size fruit, around 1.5cm diameter and purple to black in colour. In winter though they are shrivelled and looking much worse for wear, with most of them having fallen already. Hawthorn in comparison holds onto it’s berries better in winter. Look for smaller, dark red berries, with an ovoid shape, growing in sparse clusters. As they dry out they darken in colour.

 

Looking Under The Tree

Have a good kick about in the leaf litter under a tree and you might find another big hint to what species you’re looking at. The old saying goes “the apple never falls far from the tree” and that’s good news for us in this case. I’m talking about fallen fruits and nut cases, many of which can still be found in the depths of winter, if not in the best condition.

winter tree identification: fallen fruits and nuts

Top Left: Crab Apples. Mid Top: Sweet Chestnut. Top Right: Hazelnuts, nibbled by wildlife. Bottom Left: Conkers from Horse Chestnut. Mid Bottom: Beech mast and leaf litter. Bottom Right: A bract from a Lime tree.

Some trees, like the Crab Apple, have a dead giveaway with the fallen, rotting fruits. Look under an established hazelnut and you’ll most likely find empty nut shells, nibbled away by rodents and birds. Then there’s tree like out three native Limes which have special leaves called bracts, which look like nothing else you’ll find on the woodland floor and can only belong to a Lime tree. Beech mast is very reliable under mature trees and you’ll find yourself crunching in underfoot as it carpets the woodland floor. There’s much to be gained by looking down.

Now this only works if there’s something to find and also you should be wary of relying on this too heavily where the tree is crowded with others as  what you’re looking at may have fallen from it’s neighbour.

By the far the most reliable method of winter tree identification is to begin with a branch and study a healthy twig and it’s buds. That way we can be sure we’re investigating the right tree and the knowledge of bud and twig is transferable no matter whether the ground below is humous or concrete.

 

Get Your FREE Winter Tree Guide

I’ve created a handy guide you can use when you’re out and about looking at trees during winter. The guide features 18 native and common British trees which have buds, twigs and leaf litter that you might already be familiar with but also there’s other signs here that you’ve probably never noticed before. I’ve laid out similar looking species side by side so that you can easily distinguish between them.

The guide puts the focus firmly on the winter buds but you’ll also see smaller images featuring other clues you can look for in each species such as old fruits, leaf litter, nut cases, bark and catkins. Where I’ve included these they act as dead giveaways to which tree species you’re looking at.

I hope you find it useful on your journey to understanding the trees around us.

DOWNLOAD YOUR GUIDE HERE

 

Discover more About Trees

It can be so interesting to really look in to the details of our native trees and notice the changes that they undergo throughout the four seasons. That’s just what I’ve created for my FREE introductory online course called Kickstart Your Tree ID Skills. Here you will find a whole host of resources to take you from clueless to confident on your way to really knowing your trees.

REGISTER FOR THE FREE COURSE HERE

kickstart your tree id skills, free online course

When you sign up to this free mini-course you’ll be identifying common trees with video tutorials and photo galleries at your fingertips. Start your journey to becoming a fully fledged Tree Expert today. The course includes Tree ID Cheat Sheets which you can download and take outdoors with you.

“I’ve been frustrated for so long trying to learn my trees myself and haven’t gotten far. This course answered everything and has seriously upped my game.” Dr. Patrick Alexander

 

Happy tree hunting folks.

James

bushcraft skills course in north wales

My Weekend in the Woods

Have you ever wanted to learn skills that would help you thrive in the wild, from how to read the landscape to lighting a fire with natural materials? My name is Emily Fox and I was asked to write about my experience attending a Bushcraft Skills Weekend with Woodland Classroom.

Woodland Classroom host outdoor courses that cover everything from tree identification, foraging and outdoor survival skills, but in reality those lines often blur as there is so much cross-over in these subjects, so I was looking forward to a little of everything. In this blog I’ll be taking you along with me as I tell you what I got up to in my weekend in the woods. To check out what other outdoor courses we have coming up click here. 

I’m already a pretty outdoorsy person, I’m really into my climbing and love hiking, especially around Snowdonia and the Lake District.

I spend a lot of time hiking and running around in the woods wherever possible and have even managed a little wild camping, so I’m used to being outdoors. I saw the bushcraft weekend as an opportunity to really step up my skill level and become better at understanding the land around me and how to survive if I found myself short on anything on a wild camp or out in the woods. It was something I’d not really done before so I was excited to see what skills I could learn. Having arrived late on the Friday evening though I didn’t know it would be straight into the deep end!

I was offered the option to sleep out in what looked like the ultimate den of sticks… my answer was, of course, yes. My tent, stayed in the backpack.

natural lean-to survival shelter

Above: My home from home for the weekend. Notice the bed of fresh brush which kept me off the cold floor.

Waking Up In A House Made of Sticks

Waking up on Saturday morning after a full, busy week of fast-paced work and modern living to the sun filtering through the pine trees as I lay on a bed of bracken under the canopy of the lean-to shelter was the most relaxing start to the weekend I’ve ever had. It put me right in the zone. I’d jumped at the chance to come and help at a bushcraft weekend in Wales as it sounded like the perfect getaway, and I was even more excited when I was offered an outdoor shelter to sleep in for the night. My lean-to was made of just sticks, leaves and branches, not a plastic tarp in sight, but despite it having rained the whole day before this natural shelter was bone dry and I slept like a baby the whole night!

After introducing ourselves to the group James, our Head Instructor, took us into the woods and asked us to look at our surroundings and share what we could tell about the landscape around us. I was asked to read the landscape; what did I notice about the age of the trees, did I recognise any plant species, how might the land-use have changed over time and where could water possibly be found? This was all about waking up our inner-ancestor and looking at the land through ancient eyes, those people that relied on the land for their survival. We were then tasked with going and having a look to see what natural materials we could gather that could be useful to us. Spruce resin for fire building, blackberries for eating, flexible willow branches for weaving and spruce needles for natural medicine were all things students brought back.

making survival shelters

Above: Constructing a kennel shelter. The whole thing is held up by just 3 poles. No rope is used.

Sharp Tools & Shelters

The first activity was to whittle a tent peg from greenwood, something that would come in handy later. James showed us safe ways to use a knife, cutting techniques and knife grips to use in making the peg. I was pleased with my finished peg and tucked it into my backpack for tomorrow. Having shown we were safe with the knives we were allowed to keep them on us for the weekend. Next we were onto natural shelter building, similar to the one I’d slept in last night.

The group was split into two and each team was guided through making a different style of lean-to we split into two groups and got to work building different types of lean-to shelters. James showed us how to use bundles of bracken, like thatching, to make a layered waterproof covering to keep the shelters dry. Working in smaller groups let us be super involved in each activity and allowed us to get to know the people we were working with a lot better. Using these materials was time-consuming, compared to putting up a tent, but they were also surprisingly effective and I got a real sense of achievement from creating this structure. It’s an empowering experience and I can see why bushcraft skills can be addictive – the idea of being able to fend for yourself, accessing “secret” knowledge.

whittling skills on a bushcraft course

Above: Other folks on the course very happy with their brand new tent pegs.

Playing with Fire

After lunch at basecamp we went back into the woods to start on fire making. We began by looking at all the components we needed to actually light and sustain a fire. The three essential aspects of a fire are heat, fuel and oxygen. I would need all of these things in abundance to keep my fire healthy. I experimented with lighting fires using modern fire-steel and traditional flint & steel. I was given cotton wall and char-cloth (made my baking natural fabrics) and I soon saw that without any substantial fuel the flame only lasted for a few seconds before dying off.

I learned that by adding an accelerant, either something I could bring with me like vaseline or something gathered from the woods, such as spruce resin. My little fire lasted a lot longer, around thirty seconds instead. We then used this principle to find natural tinder, kindling and accelerants before building our own fires, gradually building our firewood thickness until we got from a small flame to our own roaring campfire that could sustain us through the night if needed.

It really is true that once you have a simple roof over your head and a fire going, you can feel at home anywhere. The cup of tea helped.

 

Identifying Trees in the Dark?!

Just as the sun was setting James ran a night-time tree identification walk. Now this sounds intriguing; how can we possible identify trees in the dark? We took a stroll in the darkening woods to see if we could hone our skills, with James teaching us how to recognise trees based on just the leaf shapes, texture of the bark and shape of the tree against the sky. There were some really interesting conversations about how we each recognised certain trees. For example, someone commented on the fact that the oak tree was easy to identify by its outline because it was often used on pub signs. James encouraged us to closely examine the trees we came across; see what the leaves felt like, how the branches were structured, all whilst encouraging us to draw on what knowledge we already had. I was also encouraged to engage my other senses. I discovered that I could recognise a mature beech with my eyes shut as I could hear the crunch of the thick layer of beech mast beneath my feet – result! James was giving out ‘bushcraft points’ to anyone with correct answers. I earned 5 bushcraft points for remembering that holly leaves further up the tree aren’t spiky because animals don’t graze on them, then lost another two for excessive gloating, oops!

 

Easy Like Sunday Morning

Another comfortable night in my stick home, with the tawny owls hoots for company. James had explained that by crafting a raised bed from, logs brash and bracken layered up that it raised my body off the cold ground and so added a lot of insulation. It’s said that layers below you are much more valuable than a layer on top when sleeping on the earth.

I started Sunday with a nature-awareness exercise, called the Sit Spot. James talked to us about connecting with nature by taking a moment to sit outside and quietly observe what was happening around us, without expectation or agenda. With that we each slunk off into the woods to find a quiet comfortable spot. I sat for 20 minutes to take in everything going on around me before coming back and reporting what we had seen, heard or felt. It was lovely to start the day by connecting deeply with our environment. Tis is a real contrast to the attitude I adopt when hiking where the purpose of being outdoors is to get from one place to another, rather than simply allowing myself and nature to be.

water filtering and billy can cooking

Above: Hanging out billy can above the fire using campcraft skills. Filtering dirty water using natural materials.

Making My Ultimate Woodland Getaway

The majority of today was all about putting together the skills we had learnt so far. The goal was to be able to set up our own shelters, start a fire and make a cup of tea in our camps. I would need to use my knife for cutting, shelter building skills, I’d need a way to hang my billy can over the fire and I’d need plenty of firewood. Lots to be getting on with.

The first activity was to filter water using natural materials we could find in the woods as well as artificial ones to. We would not be drinking the water we filtered aa this should only be done in a real situation, but it was good to see the principles at work. We then worked on making natural cordage using nettles and bramble. This cordage could be used for our shelters or for hanging our billy can. James showed us how to identify the most suitable bits of plant to use and how to dry and braid the strands to make a strong cord which could be used for years.

Since yesterday we all made a natural shelter, today we were given a one-person tarp (called a basha) to rig over our makeshift camps. James introduced me to a couple of knots for getting it all taught. Our group decided to combine the tarp alongside the lean-to I slept out in so we had a covered area for our outdoor fire – very cosy indeed. Our whittled tent pegs and natural cordage came in handy here and we saw how strong this natural fibre really was when put to the test of holding up our shelter.

Next we worked we turned to campcraft skills with the challenge of creating something that could be used to hang our billy can for boiling our brew over the fire. I worked with a couple of others, each of us made a different part of the frame from hazel wood before moving the various components over to our camp. Each group came up with a totally different way of solving the problem which was good to see. My trusty tent peg came in handy to anchor the pot pole. I used my wild cord to make the billy can adjustable so we could lower it down or back up depending on how intense we wanted the boil.

natural cordage and survival shelter

Above: We combined paracord with our bramble cord to tie off our shelter. Matt looking very content in his woodland home.

Making Fire… in Heavy Rain!

It was time for the big finish, practising ancient fire by friction skills. Something I had read about and seen on YouTube but not done myself yet. Now it’s very important that certain components of this traditional fire-starting kit be kept bone dry. We were all set, feeling somewhat confident… and then the heavens opened! We were to make our fires using bow drills and due to the rain coming down we decided to work in teams to increase our chances of success rather than everyone struggling individually in unideal conditions. I get the feeling this is how our ancestors would have pulled together in a real situation… so it’s not cheating.

Once James showed us the technique I was surprised how quickly we achieved smoke and the beginnings of an ember. James tressed how success comes not from powering through to eventual success but using good technique and communication with each other to ensure the best chance of making fire. Unfortunately, for a beginner like me, these were not ideal conditions. The rain was getting heavier and this made it hard for us to create any sparks or for a flame to catch in our tinder nest, but with a little help, we eventually managed to get a roaring fire going and enjoyed a well-earned hot cup of tea from our billy can. Job done! 

fire by friction skills course

Above: Me working with my group on fire-by-friction to get a good ember for our fire.

Home & Dry

At the end of the day, we had practiced the skills to go out into the woods and thrive on what we could find around us in a sustainable and nature-focused way.

There was something very rewarding about managing to make the bow drilling a success despite the elements being against us. We were shouting when we finally got it going it was an amazing feeling and even though we were all pretty tired at the end of the weekend I definitely felt like I had learnt so much. It was more than just learning skills to use outdoors, it was changing the way I thought about nature and being creative with how I solved any problems I might face if I was in the woods without certain tools. I’ve definitely caught the bushcraft bug.

 

Ready For Your Own Adventure?

I can highly recommend this course and I’m looking forward to attending more in the future, especially the Wild Food and Foraging Day. If you’re looking for a quality and fun experience like this then do check out our upcoming courses.

Woodland Classroom host outdoor courses on bushcraft skills, wild food & foraging, nature connection and tree identification all surrounded by the beautiful National Trust estate woodland of Erddig and Chirk Castle in North-East Wales. Courses are available for adult learners, families and private bookings. Get in touch if you’d like to know more.

SEE OUR UPCOMING COURSES HERE

Hope to see you in the woods,

Emily

Emily Fox is our Outdoor Activities Assistant, on placement to Woodland Classroom for 12 months. She hopes one day to run her own outdoor activity business where she can share her passion with others.

forage your own sweet chestnuts

Forage Your Own Sweet Chestnuts

Often the first thing that comes to mind when thinking of chestnuts is Christmas. Have you got the words “chestnuts roasting on an open fire” singing in your head? But, did you know you don’t have to buy them in the supermarket? You can forage your own sweet chestnuts, if you know when and where to look. We’ve made a video all about how to do just that, and you can watch it just below.

Autumn is a perfect time to go foraging for a variety of wild nuts, berries, and fungi. In this blog we’re going to focus on how to find and cook sweet chestnuts, one of our favourite wild foods of the season. You will also learn how to identify the tree they grow on and learn the nutritional benefits of this wild food.

In the UK, sweet chestnuts come into season in October, so if you want them for Christmas you have to be looking well in advance and be ready to freeze them. Finding a ripe chestnut on the forest floor ready for roasting is such a treat and this article will give you the best chance of finding some for yourself. Read on to learn about the history of the sweet chestnut, become an identification expert and learn some delicious recipes to cook at home or over the campfire.

The sweet chestnut hails all the way from Western Asia and was thought to have been introduced into Europe by the Greeks or Romans and used by the military to sustain their troops. The Latin name Castanea is actually derived from the name of a Greek town called Castonis where the tree was heavily cultivated for their nuts. The sweet chestnuts that grow in the UK tend to be smaller and less successful than the ones that grow in mainland Europe due to the cooler climate and in fact most of the chestnuts we buy at Christmas are grown in either Portugal or France. The tree is at the edge of its natural range here, though climate change could make them more favourable to the UK.

sweet chestnut and wild mushroom risotto

Above: Sweet Chestnut & Wild Mushroom Risotto. An autumn favourite in our home.

How To Identify Ripe Sweet Chestnuts

The spiny casing goes from a lime green to a light brown as the chestnuts ripen, but the best ones will be more green than brown. Unfortunately, many of the largest ripe nuts will be eaten by squirrels before they can hit the ground so it’s important to go foraging early to give yourself the best chance of finding a good batch. Remember to take a thick pair of gardening gloves with you for cracking the casing open, as the spines can make the casing impenetrable and painful to handle. Don’t be disheartened if the chestnuts aren’t as big as the casing would suggest, it’s a little luck of the draw when foraging.

Sweet chestnuts are easy to identify as they’re covered in a soft white fuzz that tufts into a point at the top of the nut. Be careful not to mix them up with horse chestnuts (conkers to you and me) which looks very similar but have far less spines, a glossy shell and are more rounded. Another difference is that there are up to three sweet chestnuts in each case, whereas there is typically only one horse chestnut in each case. If you find a nut out of its casing and you’re not confident in identifying it, you can always look at other clues from the tree itself. So, let’s take a look at the video where I go foraging for nuts… 

Now we’ve had a good look at the this tasty wild food, let’s go into a bit more detail about the identifying features of the tree, so that you can be really confident you know what you’re looking at.

 

How To Identify a Sweet Chestnut Tree

The sweet chestnut (Castanea sativa) is a member of the beech family and can sometimes be confused with the horse chestnut (Aesculus hippocastanum) due to their similarity to the much-loved conker. However, there are some distinct features that set the sweet chestnut apart and will reliably help you identify the tree correctly.

Leaves

When looking for sweet chestnuts the leaves are the first identifier. They have an elongated ovular shape with a strongly serrated edge. The leaves themselves are one of the largest you will find commonly in the countryside and longer than they are wide, growing up to a huge 28cm long and up to 9cm wide. Another clue that you’re looking at a sweet chestnut are the 20 or so pairs of veins packed closely together running down the central vein.  In the spring and summer, the leaves are a thick and glossy green, fading into a mottled amber in autumn before falling off.

You can, of course, look for these distinctive leaves in the forest floor below the tree throughout winter too.

Nut Casings

Unlike the stumpy spikes of conker casings, sweet chestnuts are significantly more prickly with sharp barbs protecting the nuts from pilfering wildlife, though they don’t seem to put squirrels off. So, a thick pair of gardening gloves is essential when trying to break them open. The technical term for the spiny casing is cupules and this shell goes from a bright vibrant green to a lighter brown as they begin to mature and decay on the ground. You will start spotting the small, young cupules as early as July.

You can tell when the chestnuts are ripe because the casing will be large and green, heading towards a lighter brown colour. They will begin to split open as they ripen, and you can often see parts of the chestnut through the cracks in the casing as they grow. The cupules typically fall over a two week period around the middle of October and you will often see bits of brown casing around the tree showing the squirrels and mice have been hard at work.

Bark

On younger trees the bark is a smooth brown or deep forest green. However older sweet chestnuts develop deep fissures running lengthways up the tree which have a tendency to twist as they grow creating a spiral of fissures around the trunk which is incredibly beautiful and distinctive. Along with the fallen nut cases, this is the most reliable indicator of a mature sweet chestnut, especially going into winter when the trees lose their leaves.

Flowers

Sweet chestnuts have long light yellow catkins that flower around June, with both the male and female parts growing together on the same tree. A catkin will contain small female flowers at the base, which become the young nut cases once they are pollinated.

how to identify sweet chestnut

Top Left: Early summer flowers. Top Right: Large leaves with a serrated edge. Bottom Left: Mature trees have a twist ini the trunk. Bottom Right: The prickly nut cases of autumn.

If you’d like to know more about how to identify common trees in the British countryside, then you could join the thousands of students already on my FREE online tree identification course, where you can learn through videos, downloadable ID sheets and photo galleries. You can enroll for your free place on the course right here.

 

How To Cook Sweet Chestnuts

One of the uses utilised by the Romans is using ground roasted chestnuts to make polenta, a traditional Italian food. Today polenta is generally made from boiled cornmeal but there is no reason you couldn’t make your own polenta with chestnuts. To make a sweet chestnut flour you need a large quantity of chestnuts, probably more than you would be able to forage but there is no reason you couldn’t try to make it with shop-bought chestnuts. If you’ve never tried polenta before, it has a porridge-like consistency when hot but can be cooled down into a solid block that can be cubed and fried and goes really well with stews. You can also try using the flour to thicken bread and cakes to give it a naturally sweet edge.

Another favourite is the roasted chestnut at Christmas, if this is something you haven’t tried I would strongly recommend incorporating roasted chestnuts into your Christmas traditions. Sweet, toasted chestnuts are such a seasonal delight, but they don’t have to be eaten just at Christmas. In October you can pick them fresh from the tree and cook them there and then in a pan on the campfire or at home in your oven. Another tradition is to substitute the pan for roasting the nuts on a garden spade. They can also be cooked right in their shells in the embers and ash of an open fire. There’s a lot of fun to be had with this ancient method of simple cooking.

campfire cooking sweet chestnuts

Above: The simplest way to cook chestnuts is to roast them right in the embers of your campfire. The nut shells protect the food inside. No need to tin foil.

To roast them in an oven, score a cross on the shells and put them in a conventional oven at 200°c for 30 minutes. Once they are cooked leave them to cool for a minute or two before peeling the shells and eating.

There are so many other ways to incorporate sweet chestnuts into your food. Add roasted chestnut chunks into chocolate brownies for added crunch or into stuffing for Sunday lunch. Try tossing roasted chestnuts in a sweet soy sauce glaze for an afternoon snack. The fantastic thing about them is that chestnuts go so well with both sweet and savoury dishes so really the only limit is your imagination.

 

Marron Glacés; a French Delicacy

Below are instructions on how to make marron glacés, a traditional French recipe for crystallised chestnuts which was popular in the 18th century. They’re a delicious treat that would make for a unique addition to the Christmas table. The chestnuts require soaking over several days so leave plenty of time to prepare them.

You will need:

  • 500g fresh peeled sweet chestnuts
  • 300ml water
  • 500g caster sugar
  • 1tsp vanilla extract

Method:

  1. Boil the peeled sweet chestnuts in a pan for 10 minutes then drain the water and with your fingers, or a small clean cloth, peel the thin skin away.
  2. In another pan bring the vanilla extract, caster sugar and water to a boil to make a syrup. Make sure you stir continually to avoid any burning at the bottom of the pan. Simmer on a medium heat for 5 minutes.
  3. Stir in the chestnuts and simmer for another 10 minutes. Keep stirring!
  4. Take off the heat and transfer to a clean bowl and leave covered in a cool place overnight. Don’t put it in the fridge or the syrup will set and take longer to boil the next day. Leave them to soak for a minimum of 12 hours.
  5. The next day in a fresh pan, bring to the boil and cook for only 2 minutes before taking off the heat and leaving them to soak again for at least another 18 hours.
  6. Repeat this process three more times (I said you need plenty of time for this one!) until the sugar syrup has been absorbed by the sweet chestnuts.
  7. Transfer the chestnuts to a tray lined with baking paper and cook at 70°c for 1-2 hours with the oven door opened slightly. Check on them regularly; you want the syrup to harden before removing them.
  8. Once cooled they are ready to serve. Enjoy!

 

Good News; Chestnuts Are Good For You Too

Unsurprisingly sweet chestnuts offer a wealth of nutritional benefits, being a rich source of vitamins and minerals. Chestnuts are a source of carbohydrates and proteins; only 100 grams contains a third of your daily required carbohydrate intake and 44% of your daily required vitamin C intake which promotes the production of white blood cells to boost the immune system.

As well as this chestnuts also contain magnesium which helps strengthen enamel on your teeth and calcium and phosphorus which strengthens bones. You can also find your B vitamins in chestnuts which contribute towards keeping your nervous system and skin healthy as well as helping the body break down food, in fact B vitamins 1 through 6 can be found in chestnuts.

You can read a more about the detailed breakdown of the nutritional value of sweet chestnuts in this article by Health Benefits Times.

 Get further information about the benefits of B vitamins on the NHS website, right here.

 

Get More Wild Food Recipes & Foraging Videos

If all this talk of wild food has wetted your appetite for more then I have some good news for you. Here at Woodland Classroom we have created a special community, we call our Tribe, who in return for their support get access to exclusive wild food and foraging videos, recipe ideas, blogs, live hang outs and more. Sound good to you?

From as little as the price of a cup of dandelion coffee per month you could join our Tribe and not only be part of a growing and supportive nature connection community but also get a whole heap of perks available only to our Patrons. You can find out more about this community over on Patreon. When you join you’ll get immediate access to the entire back catalog of wild food, bushcraft and nature connection videos and resources we’ve created for our members. Find out more right here.

get access to exclusive foraging videos

Above: A selection of just some of the wild food videos you could access when you join our Tribe on Patreon.

free autumn tree guide

FREE Autumn Tree Guide

We all know that tree leaves change colour in autumn, that acorns grow on oak and conkers grow on horse chestnut, but can you tell me what the autumn fruit of the hornbeam looks like? For anyone looking to improve their tree identification skills autumn provides us with many distinctive signs such as fruits, nuts, berries and leaf colour that we can use to recognise our native and common tree species. In this blog I’ll introduce you to some of clues to look out for in autumn and break down the differences between common trees which often get confused. You can get outdoors and spot these clues for yourself with a free download I’ve created; Autumn Trees Guide, which you can get your hands on just below.

autumn tree guide - free download

By the way, if you love trees, but struggle to tell one species from another, then you could enroll in my FREE Tree Identification Course online. More details can be found at the end of the article.

 

3 Common Maple Trees

Maple leaves are quite a distinctive shape, just think of the Canadian flag. But we have several maple species commonly growing in our countryside and when it comes to including formal planting and gardens that numbers goes sky high. We shall steer clear of those for now. Let’s just look at the differences between our 3 most common maple trees which you’re most likely to see on a country walk. We will look at the difference in their leaves in autumn and also their fruits.

comparing autumn maple leaves

Left: Field Maple (Acer campestre), Middle: Sycamore (Acer pseudoplatanus), Right: Norway Maple (Acer platanoides)

So, we have 3 different maples each with their characteristic 5-lobed leaf shape. But they are also clearly quite different, especially as autumn reveals it’s colours. Let’s break that down…

Field Maple (Acer campestre) – our only native maple in the UK. Firstly, the leaves are much smaller than the other two species here and the tree itself is smaller when mature also. The lobes are more rounded than the others. But a key difference to look out for is the leaf colour in autumn, which across the whole tree will be a bright yellow. The best example is the leaf seen in the extreme left. Once they fall, they will turn brown.

Sycamore (Acer pseudoplatanus) – a commonly planted non-native maple. We’ve got a much larger leaf here than the field maple, but also the presence of Tar Spot Fungus – have you noticed those black spots? You don’t get these spots on our other two maples here, so it’s a dead giveaway. There’s something interesting about the autumn leaf colour too, in that there isn’t much to shout about. Typically you won’t see a great display of colour from our sycamores, they generally just turn a dirty/patchy brown. This is in contrast to our other two species here. Take caution though; sometimes we do get yellow leaves across the tree, but this is less common. Natures loves not conforming to simple rules 🙂

Norway Maple (Acer platanoides) – next to sycamore this is probably the most commonly planted non-native maple in the UK, particularly in urban areas and roadsides. We have a larger leaf, like sycamore, but the lobes are much more jagged and dramatic in their form. We also can’t ignore the amazing display of colours we get from norway maple, which is a world away from sycamore at this time of year. Just look at those reds, oranges and yellows.

In summer, all these leaves are green, of course. But come the autumn you can clearly see the differences. Let’s not forget the fruits of the maples either, what many people call “helicopters.” These winged seed cases are a favourite of children who love throwing them in the air and watching them spin to the earth. Let’s take a look at the differences between our 3 maples when it comes to these “helicopters.”

comparing maple seeds

Left: Field Maple (Acer campestre), Middle: Sycamore (Acer pseudoplatanus), Right: Norway Maple (Acer platanoides), Inset: Sycamore seeds in autumn

You can see the clear difference in not only the typical size of the winged seeds but also their shape. Field maple seeds typically have their wings at 180 degrees to each other, whereas sycamore wings are generally at a more down-swept 45 degrees. The norway maple wings are larger again. By the way, this picture is of the seeds in summer, when they are not fully mature so be aware that in autumn the mature wings will all be brown in colour, as seen in the inset picture.

I hope that’s cleared up any confusion between these 3 common maples. Now, let’s look at some autumn berries which can be the cause of confusion.

 

Red Berries Everywhere

To someone starting out in tree identification, it can be easy to get confused between tree species which have similar berries, especially when they’re the same colour. Just take a look at these below…

uk native trees in autumn: red berries

Top Left: Hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna), Top Right: Guelder-rose (Viburnum opulus), Bottom Left: Rowan (Sorbus aucuparia), Bottom Right: Whitebeam (Sorbus aria)

Here we have four different native trees, each with red berries. So, how can we easily tell between them? Well although this may seem confusing at first glance there are differences to see once we slow down and look closer. Here’s my handy hints for telling these trees apart in autumn:

Hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna) – this is the 3rd display of colour we’ve had from this tree over the year. The first being the flush of spring green leaves which fill our hedgerows and roadsides. The second comes in May with the white blossom, smelling of sweet almonds. This third display are the berries themselves, known as haws. They are round to oval in shape, with a matt finish. Inside you’ll find the flesh is a yellow/green colour which surrounds a large stone. You will see less fruits per bunch than you will with the other species here. Also, look out for the thorns on the branch, which these other species don’t have.

Guelder-rose (Viburnum opulus) – a common shrub of hedgerows. Firstly these striking red berries grow in umbels (a cluster of stalks), unlike the hawthorn. Also, these berries are really glossy. They have a real shine to them. The flesh inside is red, with the whole berry being much less firm than the others here. Lastly, their shape is important, which is more difficult to see from the above picture, but they are partially flattened, as if their round shape has been squashed.

Rowan (Sorbus aucuparia) – you may know this tree as the mountain ash. These berries grow from an umbel, with many berries per cluster. The seed inside is much smaller than that of hawthorn. The month you’re seeing these berries is also important too because they can appear on the tree as early as July and can persist after the leaves have fallen in autumn. So, they have a long season on the branch. Beware that there are many cultivars of rowan which are planted in urban spaces. You can even get orange or yellow berry varieties. But in the countryside, you’re unlikely to see these.

Whitebeam (Sorbus aria) – These are the largest berry of the four seen here. A feature which is difficult t pick up from this image is that the berries are peppered with white/grey spots called lenticels. Notice the latin family name ‘Sorbus’, this species is related to our rowan. So, it’s no surprise there are some similarities in how the berries look. Like the rowan, there are several cultivars of whitebeam which you might well see in urban areas and gardens, so we’re just talking about the wild native here.

 

We’re missing a key piece of the puzzle here though, the leaves. We need to widen our view of these trees because if we just look at the berries we’re not using all of the information available to us. Take a look at the images below and you’ll see that we have four very different leaf shapes with their respective autumn colours.

autumn leaf collage

Top Left: Hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna), Top Right: Guelder-rose (Viburnum opulus), Bottom Left: Rowan (Sorbus aucuparia), Bottom Right: Whitebeam (Sorbus aria)

So, as we can now see, with the full picture things become a little easier. This is one of the big things I ask my students to practise when they’re out identifying trees. I ask them to “Tune In” so they look at the bigger picture before concentrating on the details. Clues like leaf shape, bark, or even the place where the tree is growing can tell us a lot about what we’re looking at.

 

Get Your FREE Autumn Tree Guide

I’ve created a handy guide you can use when you’re out and about looking at trees during autumn. The guide features 18 native and common British trees which have fruits, berries or nuts that you might already be familiar with but also there’s other signs here that you’ve probably never noticed before. I’ve laid out similar looking berries side by side so that you can easily distinguish between them.

You’ll also see smaller images featuring typical autumn leaf colour for each species. Notice which ones turn a distinct colour and also which ones, like alder and sycamore, don’t tend to have a display of colour at all. This too can be a useful identifying feature, once you get your eye in.

I hope you find it useful on your journey to understanding the trees around us.

DOWNLOAD YOUR GUIDE HERE

 

Discover more About Trees

It can be so interesting to really look in to the details of our native trees and notice the changes that they undergo throughout the four seasons. That’s just what I’ve created for my FREE introductory online course called Kickstart Your Tree ID Skills. Here you will find a whole host of resources to take you from clueless to confident on your way to really knowing your trees.

REGISTER FOR THE FREE COURSE HERE

kickstart your tree id skills, free online course

When you sign up to this free mini-course you’ll be identifying common trees with video tutorials and photo galleries at your fingertips. Start your journey to becoming a fully fledged Tree Expert today. The course includes Tree ID Cheat Sheets which you can download and take outdoors with you.

“I’ve been frustrated for so long trying to learn my trees myself and haven’t gotten far. This course answered everything and has seriously upped my game.” Dr. Patrick Alexander

 

Happy tree hunting folks.

James

spring tree flowers guide

FREE Spring Tree Flower Guide

Ask someone “what grows on oak trees” and most people will say “acorns” but have you ever noticed the beautiful pink flowers growing on oak? There’s a hidden world of wonderful tree flowers that many of us walk right by without giving them a glance. In this blog I’ll introduce you to some of the best tree flowers to look out for in spring. You can find them yourself with a free download I’ve created Spring Trees: Flower Guide UK, which you can get your hands on just below.

spring tree flower guide - free download

Get a FREE Spring Trees Flower Guide. Print it out or download it to your phone.

By the way, if you love trees, but struggle to tell one species from another, then you could enroll in my FREE Tree Identification Course online. More details can be found at the end of the article.

 

Which Trees Have Flowers?

The simple answer to this is that all our native and common broadleaf trees have flowers. When you get to conifers (evergreens) things get a little more tricky so let’s set those aside for now.

Most of our trees show their flowers in spring but some, like the elder, wait until early summer. Knowing what order the flowers emerge in spring can be a good skill to help you identify which tree species you’re looking at. Male flowers will become laden with yellow pollen whilst the (usually) more colourful female flowers will eventually mature into the seed, fruit, nut or berry.

The majority of our trees have both their male and female flowers on the same branch, sometimes right next to each other, but others have separate male and female trees, relying on their being a member of the opposite sex in the near vicinity for pollination to occur. I wrote a whole article about which trees are male and female, if you want to know more just follow this link.

Trees like willow and poplar don’t have flowers as we usually know them, with petals, but rather they have catkins, which fill the early spring canopy with whites and yellows. As spring comes to a close the female catkins have gone to seed and you can have sunny May days with masses of fluffy willow and poplar seeds gently floating through the breeze. If you want to find out more about catkins, I’ve written a whole article about them. You can check that out here.

 

3 Tiny, But Beautiful Tree Flowers To Look Out For

3 amazing but tiny tree flowers

3 Beautiful Native Tree Flowers To Hunt Down; English Oak (Quercus robur), Hornbeam (Carpinus betulus) and Alder (Alnus glutinosa).

They may be small but that doesn’t mean these tree flowers don’t pack a visual punch when you do spot them. Earlier in the season (late winter) we have the tiny flowers of the hazel (Corylus avellana) looking like red tentacled sea-anemones. They are one of the first signs that spring is on its way.

But there’s three more crimson beauties I want to draw your attention to. First we have the female flowers of our native oaks. The green male catkins are also found growing on the same branch. You will find these tiny pink flowers appearing with the young leaves in late April to early May. Look out for them as they won’t be there for long.

Hornbeam, often mistaken for beech (Fagus sylvatica), is another native which produces two very different male and female flowers, the males being catkins. The females resemble the flowers of hazel, with pink tendrils spread out to catch pollen. You will find these on the tree in April.

Lastly, the alder, a tree which favours wet ground and riverbanks. It has not only vividly purple buds and male catkins, but in early spring you might well spot the young female flowers before they turn green and begin their journey to maturing into cones. When young they resemble bright pink cotton buds, a real splash of colour in February and March. Keep your eyes peeled!

 

Know Your Tree Flowers

To someone starting out in tree identification, it can be easy to get confused between tree species which have similar flowers, especially when they’re the same colour. Just take a look at these below…

how to identify spring tree flowers

Top Left: Blackthorn (Prunus spinosa), Top Right: Crab Apple (Malus sylvestris), Bottom Left: Wild Cherry (Prunus avium), Bottom Right: Hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna)

Here we have four different native trees, each with white flowers, with 5 petals each. So how can we easily tell between them? Well although this may seem confusing at first glance and each of these species could be found growing next door to one another, what we don’t have here is context. What I mean here is specifically the time of year we would find these flowers. The other thing we need to consider is other identifying signs away from the flowers themselves. Here’s my handy hints for telling these trees apart in spring:

Blackthorn (Prunus spinosa) – this is the first tree to come into flower en masse in our hedgerows. We see this in March when everything else still has closed buds.  Also, look out for the wicked thorns on the twig and trunk.

Crab Apple (Malus sylvestris) – this is the largest of the four flowers shown here. Notice how the petals are really opened out. They resemble an apple core when it’s sliced crossways, looking like a 5 pointed star. These flowers are typically out in May. Also, you will probably find rotten apples on the ground below the tree, so look out for those.

Wild Cherry (Prunus avium) – these flowers can closely resemble the hawthorn, however the flowers of wild cherry emerge before the leaves in April whereas with hawthorn the flowers come out after the leaves. Also, you will not find any thorns on a wild cherry.

Hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna) – one of the key features for these flowers is their smell. The have a sickly-sweet (though I think it’s pleasant) aroma of almond or marzipan. You will find these flower in late-April to May. An old country name for this tree is the maythorn because it traditionally flowers at this time of the year. Remember, the tree has thorns, so look for those too.

 

Get Your FREE Spring Tree Flower Guide

I’ve created a handy guide you can use when you’re out and about looking at trees during spring. The guide features 18 native and common British trees which have flowers that you might already be familiar with and flowers that you’ve probably never noticed before. The trees are laid out in the order which they come into flower so you know not only what to look for but when to look for it.

I hope you find it useful on your journey to understanding the trees around us.

DOWNLOAD YOUR GUIDE HERE

 

Discover more About Trees

It can be so interesting to really look in to the details of our native trees and notice the changes that they undergo throughout the four seasons. That’s just what I’ve created for my FREE introductory online course called Kickstart Your Tree ID Skills. Here you will find a whole host of resources to take you from clueless to confident on your way to really knowing your trees.

REGISTER FOR THE FREE COURSE HERE

kickstart your tree id skills, free online course

When you sign up to this free mini-course you’ll be identifying common trees with video tutorials and photo galleries at your fingertips. Start your journey to becoming a fully fledged Tree Expert today. The course includes Tree ID Cheat Sheets which you can download and take outdoors with you.

“I’ve been frustrated for so long trying to learn my trees myself and haven’t gotten far. This course answered everything and has seriously upped my game.” Dr. Patrick Alexander

 

Happy tree hunting folks.

James

trees versus shrubs what's the difference

Is It A Tree Or A Shrub?

Have you ever wondered what the difference is between a tree and a shrub? The answer does not always seem clear. Is an ancient oak, growing small and stunted on a mountainside classed as a shrub or a tree? In this article you’re going to learn the difference between trees and shrubs. It’s a question that many of the students on my FREE Tree Identification Course have asked me, so I thought I’d tackle it here.

When we think of a tree, usually the image of a majestic oak comes to mind. Standing tall, proud and ancient with a wide crown of leaves. But a low-growing mountain-side juniper with it’s spreading habit is just as much a tree as the mighty oak. Let’s find out why…

are these trees or shrubs?

Left: a stunted hawthorn growing on a mountainside. Right: Juniper, low-growing & spreading. Are they both trees?

 

WHAT MAKES IT A TREE?

Firstly, what differentiates trees from other plants? Well, a tree puts on woody growth which is permanent, where as with annual or perennial plants the shoots or whole plant dies back each year. Many of our wildflowers have to start from scratch, reproducing from seed each Spring. Whereas our trees will sit out the winter waiting for the warm weather to return.

It is the cambium layer, which lies under the bark of a tree which produces new permanent cells. As well as performing a bunch of important jobs for the tree these cells also form the woody trunk and structure of the tree. With all trees the thickness of their stems increases year on year (when healthy) which means that the diameter of the trunk and branches gradually increases. It is this annual growth which gives a tree its rings by which we can count its age.

 

WHAT IS A SHRUB?

The word “shrub” isn’t a botanical classification, but rather catch-all term for a plant which has more than one main stem, is generally less than 5 metres tall, and grows with a spreading habit.

So, the term “shrub” can refer just as much to a perennial garden bush like a hydrangea as it can to a woodland tree such as a hazel.

One of the most common examples of trees in shrub form is the hedgerow. Here hawthorn, blackthorn, hazel, holly and others are clipped back annually to form the dense, linear hedges we’re so familiar with. Hidden amongst all this there can often be species which we think of as trees such as oak, ash and sycamore, which too have been clipped back. So, does this make them shrubs or trees? I’ll let you ponder that one.

common native shrubs of the UK

3 Common Trees in Shrub Form; hazel as a coppice stool with 1 year regrowth, blackthorn with it’s early spring white blossom and elder with it’s summer flowers.

Here’s a great quote from the Reader’s Digest Field Guide to Tree & Shrubs of Britain which sums it all up;

“The difference between trees and shrubs is simple. Trees have a single woody stem, from which branches grow to form a crown. The branches of shrubs arise at ground level, forming a crown without a stem.”

But what’s truly going on here? To understand this we need to look deeper at the natural and human forces affecting whether a woody plant grows as a tree or shrub.

 

HOW SHRUBS THRIVE IN THE WOODS

In the woodland, the smaller trees which live happily in the shadow of their taller brothers (the oaks and ash of the forest) occupy the understorey. This is sometimes referred to as the ‘shrub layer’ of the woodland. These trees typically won’t grow taller than 5 metres, having found their niche in the habitat here.

Think of a woodland understorey made up of holly. Being an evergreen it sits very happily in the shade of taller trees through the summer. This is because once the leaves of oak and beech have fallen the holly can photosynthesise to its hearts content and take advantage of all that available light.

Meanwhile many shrubby trees come into flower or leaf earlier than the trees species in the high canopy. Blackthorn puts out its blossom before any other tree, ensuring that the pollinating insects give it their full attention before there’s too much competition. Meanwhile, the tiny red flowers of hazel can appear as early as December. The elder is our first native tree to come into leaf, as early as January, catching that winter sun. It’s amazing how our woods have evolved so that everyone gets their moment in the sun. There’s a beautiful interconnected poetry to it.

WHEN A SHRUB BECOMES A TREE & VICE-VERSA

So, can a shrub become a tree? Well, usually if a tree has been continually cut back then the result is a whole lot of stems. These will continue to grow in this shrubby form, though there will be some stems which die back naturally as the healthiest ones grow on, but it will always be a shrub.

In a woodland setting a hawthorn will often be in shrub form as part of the understorey. However, out in a field, where it has seeded with sufficient light and space it can grow with just one or two main stems and be very much a tree.

There are only a couple of ways a shrub can become a tree. First, when it is either deliberately pruned by us to take back its tree form, though it will always want to put out new shoots from the stool. The other route to true tree-dom is if you have a tall tree species such as oak, sycamore or beech which have been cut back in the past but then neglected for many years. These will usually form into trees, however they often still have more than one main stem. We see this in neglected coppice woodland and in over-stood hedgerows.

On the flip side through traditional woodland management like coppicing, some tree species are encouraged to grow multiple stems growing from their base (known as the stool). The regrowth of rods put out by the tree can then be harvested on an ongoing cycle. These can be made into coppice products such as charcoal, wooden furniture, firewood and turnery.

Even normally tall-growing trees like oak, ash and sweet chestnut respond well to coppicing. They can be encouraged into this shrub-like form so their multiple stems can be harvested on a 15-30 year cycle.

coppice trees and shrubs

Trees can be coppiced to produce multiple stems. Left: hazel, a common coppice tree. Right: despite having multiple stems the height & girth of this large coppiced tree is way past the point being a shrub.

SHRUBS: A DEFINITIVE LIST

Here’s a list of our common native trees that can often be seen growing in shrub form, many of which are found in hedgerows and waysides across the UK;

hazel, elder, juniper, sea buckthorn, crab apple, hawthorn, blackthorn, buckthorn, alder buckthorn, box, dogwood, guelder-rose, field maple, spindle, holly, rowan, wayfaring tree, wild privet and any of the willows.

It can be so interesting to really look in to the details of our native trees and notice the changes that they undergo throughout the four seasons. That’s just what I’ve created for my FREE introductory online course called Kickstart Your Tree ID Skills. Here you will find a whole host of resources to take you from clueless to confident on your way to really knowing your trees.

REGISTER FOR THE FREE COURSE HERE

kickstart your tree id skills, free online course

When you sign up to this free mini-course you’ll be identifying common trees with video tutorials and photo galleries at your fingertips. Start your journey to becoming a fully fledged Tree Expert today. The course includes Tree ID Cheat Sheets which you can download to your device and take outdoors with you.

 

“I’ve been frustrated for so long trying to learn my trees myself and haven’t gotten far. This course answered everything and has seriously upped my game.” Dr. Patrick Alexander

 

GET TO KNOW YOUR TREES

I’ve also created some videos on how to recognise one of our most common shrubby trees, the hazel. You can follow me in either winter or summer and learn the key features you should be looking out for so that you can recognise this species whatever the time of year. Check out the videos below.

Happy tree hunting folks.

James

which trees have catkins

Which Trees Have Catkins?

When out and about wandering the wilds have you noticed catkins on the trees? Depending on what time of year you’re looking they can be small and closed up or they could be large, mature, pendulous flowers, dangling like lambs tails in the breeze. They can be a very useful sign to help us identify what species of tree we are looking at.

In this blog I’ll explain what catkins are, when you can see them on different tree species and which trees have catkins. If you love trees, but struggle to tell one species from another, then you could enroll in my FREE Tree Identification Course online. More details can be found at the end of the article.

You can also get your hands on a free download; Spring Trees Catkin Guide which you can find below.

 

What Are Catkins?

Catkins are made up of a hanging spike of tiny flowers, which begin their lives all closed up but will mature and open as spring approaches. Catkins release pollen which is reliant on the wind to blow it over to a waiting flower. As a general rule, the catkins open up and mature before the leaves appear on the tree. The reason for this is so that the leaves don’t get in the way of the pollen travelling on the wind, so the chances of pollination are increased – nature’s pretty clever like that. Typically there are a lot more of the male catkins on the tree than the female flowers, again giving the tree the best chance at reproduction.

In the majority of tree species, catkins are usually male, but this is not always the case. With willow trees there are separate male and female catkins which only grow on separate trees. So they are reliant on there being the opposite sex tree within reach of the wind.

goat willow - male & female

Goat Willow (Salix caprea) has striking catkins in early Spring. The males (left) and the females (right) appear on separate trees.

When Do Catkins Appear?

On some native trees the new catkins can appear as early as the autumn, when they will be short, closed up and firm to the touch. These will hang around on the branch through winter as they slowly swell and mature. If you’re seeing these young catkins on a tree in winter then it’s most likely one of the following; alder (Alnus glutinosa), birch (Betula spp.) or hazel (Corylus avellana), these are the most common.

alder and birch catkins

Alder (Alnus glutinosa) on the left and birch (Betula spp.) on the right. Young catkins appearing in autumn.

In late winter the hazel tree’s catkins undergo a transformation as they swell in size, open up and release their pollen to the striking but tiny scarlet flowers. They are a beautiful but often overlooked splash of colour at this time of year, if you can find them. The catkins themselves are notable in late winter because they are maturing well ahead of any other native tree. Give the mature catkins a little tap and you might  well be rewarded with a cloud of pollen puffing from the flowers.

hazel catkins and flowers

Hazel (Corylus avellana) is the first native tree to give us a striking splash of colour in late winter, even if it is tiny. A country nickname for the catkins is “lambs tails”

In early spring it’s the turn of the willows and poplars to open up their catkins and this makes these species much easier to recognise than at any other time of the year. As we get to late spring, the female willow flowers have been pollinated and we get those distinctive white fluffy catkins of seeds which float on the wind and litter the pavement and curb-side, the bane of street-sweepers everywhere. I think they look quite nice though.

mature willow catkins in late spring

The fluffy pollinated seeds of the Goat Willow (Salix caprea) these are the mature female catkins. Seeds then spread by wind-dispersal.

Here’s a list of all our native tree species which have catkins, at one time of the year or another:

Alder, Aspen, Black Poplar, Birch, English Oak, Grey Poplar, Hazel, Hornbeam, Sessile Oak, Sweet Chestnut, Willows and White Poplar

Discover more About Trees

It can be so interesting to really look in to the details of our native trees and notice the changes that they undergo throughout the four seasons. That’s just what I’ve created for my FREE introductory online course called Kickstart Your Tree ID Skills. Here you will find a whole host of resources to take you from clueless to confident on your way to really knowing your trees.

REGISTER FOR THE FREE COURSE HERE

kickstart your tree id skills, free online course

When you sign up to this free mini-course you’ll be identifying common trees with video tutorials and photo galleries at your fingertips. Start your journey to becoming a fully fledged Tree Expert today. The course includes Tree ID Cheat Sheets which you can download and take outdoors with you.

“I’ve been frustrated for so long trying to learn my trees myself and haven’t gotten far. This course answered everything and has seriously upped my game.” Dr. Patrick Alexander

 

free spring tree catkin guide

FREE Spring Trees Catkins Guide

I’ve created a quick reference pictures guide to 9 of our native and common trees which produce catkins from late winter to early summer. I’ve arranged them in order of when their catkins appear too so you know not only what to look for but when to look for it. I hope you find it useful.

DOWNLOAD YOUR GUIDE HERE

Happy tree hunting folks.

James

are trees male and female?

Are Trees Male & Female?

We all know how it works with animals, but can trees be either male or female? Or do they have their male and female reproductive parts on the same tree? In this article I’ll break down for you the answer to the question whether trees can be male or female and also give you some common examples you can see for yourself, out in the countryside.

The short answer to the question is… sometimes.

It’s a question I had to ask myself when doing research for creating my FREE Tree Identification Online Course. Having scoured the books and spent extensive time in the field looking at the evidence, I’ve discovered that here in the UK we have a number of native species which have separate male and female trees, although they are in the minority.

 

WORD OF THE DAY: DIOECIOUS

Trees which do have separate male and female individuals are referred to as being dioecious (pronounced dye-e-schuss), which is defined in the dictionary as “having the male and female reproductive organs, especially flowers, on different individuals.”

On the flip side, trees and plants that include the organs or flowers or both sexes on the same individual are called monoecious. The majority of native trees fall into this category, including trees like oak, birch, beech and hazel.

birch and hazel male and female flowers

Left: Birch with both male & female parts on the same branch. Right: Hazel with female flowers above and male catkins below.

In the image above you can see that the birch (Betula spp.) has female flowers (small, green and upright catkins) as well as male flowers (long pendulous and speckled catkins) on the same branch. Meanwhile hazel (Corylus avellana) has very different female and male parts on the same tree.

An easy way to remember which parts you’d expect to see on a dioecious tree is that with male trees they produce the seed (in this case pollen) which then fertilises the female trees which then grow the fruit, seed, nut or berry – sound familiar?

 

LOOKING AT EXAMPLES

So, where might you have seen a dioecious tree whilst out on your Sunday walk? Let’s talk about some examples.

Have you ever wondered why you don’t always see red berries on a holly (Ilex aquifolium) in winter? This is because only the female trees bear the fruit. It’s worth noting that there are other factors at play as well, such as whether a holly tree is getting too much shade (making it sterile) or it has no male nearby to pollinate it, so not every holly you see without berries will be a male, but EVERY holly you see with berries is a female.

holly with female berries and male flowers

Holly (Ilex aquifolium) with the familiar female berries on the left and on the right a separate tree with male flowers.

Both male and female holly trees have flowers, appearing in May, but there are subtle differences for which you might need a hand lens, so the easiest way to tell is in berry season.

 

WILLOWS & POPLARS

Once the early spring comes around there’s another two families of native trees which announce their gender, loud and proud, for all the world to see. These are the willows and the poplars. Both families of trees are closely related.

In late February and through March the willows explode with fluffy, dangling catkins. Think of the ‘pussy willow’ (Salix caprea) named after its young male catkins which look and feel like fluffy cats paws.

goat willow - male & female

Goat Willow (Salix caprea) also known as pussy willow. On the left we have the male catkins on one tree. One the right we see the female catkins on a separate tree.

Look at the yellow pollen, clearly visible on the male flowers on the left picture. Remember, this pollen is needed to fertilise the female flowers on another tree.

Meanwhile the poplars, follow suit with their own catkins. Like willows these catkins are easy to spot in early Spring as they are out before the trees come into leaf, so they really stand out. Look at the example in the picture below, we have both White Poplar (Populus alba) and Black Poplar (Populus nigra) with their striking crimson male flowers. In both cases the female flowers (also catkins) are green rather than red, so easy to tell apart once you know this.

white & black poplar - male flowers

White Poplar (Populus alba) on the left, Black Poplar (Populus nigra) on the right. Showing off in spring with their male flowers.

 

A TREE THAT BREAKS THE RULE

The ash (Fraxinus excelsior) is our third most common tree and it’s the rebel of the pack. Bending the rules – there’s always one. Look closer and in spring you could see both male and female flowers on the same tree (though on different branches) but you can also find ash trees which are exclusively male or female.

In winter, once the leaves have fallen you can often spot an ash a mile off, distinctive by its seeds, called “keys” hanging in dense bunches all in the crown. They really stand out in the overall silhouette of the tree, so look out for it. You’ll have to wait until spring though to answer the question of whether it’s male or female… or both! If you want to see pictures of both the male and female flowers of the ash, you can find these in the photo galleries of my Tree ID Course, it’s free to sign up.

So, if you’re planning some tree planting yourself and you want to include any of the species mentioned here you do need both a male and a female in order to let nature work its magic. However, if you are planting trees simply for ornament and you don’t want to encourage a young forest sprouting up around you (although personally that sounds quite nice to me) then it doesn’t matter, the tree will be perfectly healthy on it’s own.

 

BOYS & GIRLS – THE DEFINITIVE LIST

Here’s a complete list of all the native tree species which are dioecious (male or female)

Ash (sometimes), Aspen, Black Poplar, Buckthorn, Grey Poplar, Holly, Juniper, Sea Buckthorn, White Poplar, Willows and Yew

If you found this interesting and want to know more about the trees around you, then you can start building your tree ID skills right now by signing up to my FREE introductory online course Kickstart Your Tree ID Skills.

REGISTER FOR THE FREE COURSE HERE

kickstart your tree id skills, free online course

When you sign up to this free mini-course you’ll be identifying common trees with video tutorials and photo galleries at your fingertips. Start your journey to becoming a fully fledged Tree Expert today. The course includes Tree ID Cheat Sheets which you can download and take outdoors with you.

“I’ve been frustrated for so long trying to learn my trees myself and haven’t gotten far. This course answered everything and has seriously upped my game.” Dr. Patrick Alexander

 

Happy tree hunting folks.

James

top 3 easy ways to identify trees

3 TOP TRICKS TO IDENTIFY ANY TREE

Ever get frustrated that you don’t know what tree it is you’re looking at? Don’t sweat it, I’m going to share with you my top 3 techniques for identifying any tree out in the countryside.

I call these techniques, my 3 Key Principles of Tree Identification. Have a look at the video below and I’ll explain what they are and how you can use them yourself.


When practising tree identification (and this goes for wildflowers too) I like to play a game of elimination, whittling down what the tree isn’t to help me work out what it is. Using these techniques helps me do that. So, let’s elaborate some more on these 3 Key Principles…

 

TECHNIQUE 1:   TUNE IN

Think about your surroundings. Ask yourself, “where am I?” Are you in farmland, a town park, an old country estate or a retail centre car park?

This is important because the setting of where you’re looking at a tree can tell you a lot about which species you might expect or not expect to see.

For instance, if we’re out in farmland or a natural woodland then it’s most likely we shall see a range of our common native tree species; oak, hawthorn, ash, willow and so on. The trees that make up the majority of our countryside.

countryside

However, if we’re somewhere like a National Trust property, an old country estate, the likelihood of exotic tree species having been planted here becomes much greater. You could be seeing rhododendron, eucalyptus or even giant sequoia.

The same goes for looking at trees in somebody’s garden – they could have planted anything! There are hundreds of Acers (from the maple family) and a whole host of ornamental birches for a start, many of which are common place in gardens up and down the country.

This principle also applies to the wider environment. For instance you’re going to see a different variety of species down in Devon than you will up in the Highlands of Scotland. Certain tree species prefer certain soil types, or micro-climates, and some species will tolerate more extreme conditions, such as a mountain-side, more than others will.

So, a good habit to get into when you start practising tree identification, is when you arrive at a location to start tree hunting, take a moment to stop and ask yourself:

“Where am I?”

“What is the history of this environment?”

“Which species do I expect to see here?”

The more you practise tree identification, the more experience you will build up and the better you’ll be able to predict the range of species you could see when visiting a new place.

 

TECHNIQUE 2:  BEGIN WITH THE BRANCH

Study a young, healthy branch first.

With most tree species, you can find everything you need to know to identify it in any season simply by looking at a healthy, young branch from the tree.

Depending on the season, a young healthy twig is going to include one or more of the following distinctive features:

Buds, leaves, flowers, fruit, nuts and of course the young bark itself.

Think of a young healthy branch as the tree in microcosm. Often, everything you need to know is right here.

tree identification in winter

Everything you need to know to identify the tree can usually be found at the tip of a branch.

One word of warning, make sure that the branch you’re looking at is actually attached to the trunk of the tree you’re investigating. When you’re in a woodland or looking at a hedgerow branches tend to cross over from other trees in their race to reach sunlight and it can be easy to grab hold of a branch from the neighbouring tree.

This may sound obvious but I’ve seen it plenty of times on courses and even done it myself and it can cause a lot of confusion.

So, once you’ve selected your branch to study. Just take a moment to follow it back with your eye and check it’s attached to the right tree.

 

TECHNIQUE 3: IS IT ALTERNATE OR OPPOSITE?

Study the bud or leaf arrangement.

Depending on the time of year, the twig is either going to include buds or leaves. These features are going to be laid out in one of two forms:

1.   Alternately along the branch.

2.   Growing in opposite pairs.

This is absolutely key to nailing the species of tree as once you’ve answered that question it allows you to eliminate a whole bunch of species from your enquiry.

So I like to ask the tree this question when I first approach it. “Are your buds arranged alternately or in opposite pairs?”

The majority of native tree species in Britain have their buds or leaves arranged alternately along the branch.

One last thing to remember; it’s important to select a young healthy twig to answer this question because as a branch matures it will often self-select the healthiest of the twigs to grow on and will drop it’s near partner. So, you can be looking at an older branch and thinking that they definitely don’t grow in opposite pairs, but then on closer inspection you might well notice the old scar left over from where it’s opposite equivalent was self-selected to be dropped by the tree in favour of it’s partner.

When you become practised at this you will begin to start noticing the bud arrangement from a distance, as you look at the form of tree. This is when tree identification can become very satisfying and you can really start showing off.

 

IN CONCLUSION

In conclusion, keep these three principles in mind when you’re out and about looking at trees. They will give you a solid grounding from which to build your skills up from.

If you found this interesting and want to know more, you can start building your tree ID skills right now by signing up to my FREE introductory course Kickstart Your Tree ID Skills.

REGISTER FOR THE FREE COURSE HERE

Happy tree hunting folks.

James

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