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ten trees you can eat - wild food & foraging

Ten Trees You Can Eat

When you’re walking in the woods have you ever wondered which trees you could eat? Of course, I mean the tree’s berries, nuts, leaves and fruit. Chewing on wood is strictly for beavers only. Trees are a great source of wild food and in this article we’re going to take a look at ten of the best native and common British trees which you can forage from as well as giving you some inspiring recipe ideas using these natural ingredients.

Before we get going with the list, if you’re someone who loves trees but struggles to know what you’re looking at on your country walk, you could start building your tree identification skills today by signing up to our free online course, titled Kickstart Your Tree ID Skills. You’d be joining thousands of other students who want to know more about the trees around them. You can enroll for free right here.

Now, on with the top ten list, starting in no particular order with…

 

1. Sweet Chestnut (Castanea sativa)

Sweet chestnuts are something you typically associate with Christmas (cue Bing Crosby singing here) but in the UK you can forage for your own chestnuts around the middle of October. These really are a top nut and I don’t think we utilise them enough outside of the festive season, there are so many tasty recipes you can use them in. Our home-grown wild nuts tend to be on the smaller side compared to other parts of Europe, as in this country they are at the edge of their natural range. Shop-bought chestnuts tend to be grown in warmer climes such as Italy, Spain, and Croatia.

sweet chestnut tree foraging

Above: Sweet Chestnuts are not just for Christmas. Try roasting them in their shells in the embers of a campfire. Yum!

The casing of the sweet chestnut is easily recognisable by the long, densely packed spikes, and if you’ve ever been curious enough to pick one up you know how delicately they need to be handled to avoid being speared. You can tell when the chestnuts are ripe because the casing will be large and green, heading towards a lighter brown colour. They will also begin to split open as they ripen, and you can often see the shell of the chestnut through the cracks in the casing. The nuts grow in threes inside the spiked case. The shells are, as you would expect, a chestnut brown colour, topped with a white tuft of hairs. When foraging for these nuts make sure you use thick gloves to pry them open.

Taking a step back to look at the whole tree; another indicator you’re looking at sweet chestnut is the trunk itself. On mature trees deep fissures develop that tend to twist and spiral up the trunk. This is a more obvious distinction going into autumn when the tree begins to lose its leaves.

When it comes to cooking with sweet chestnuts the most traditional use is roasting. Firstly, pierce the shell with a knife to prevent them popping and roast them in an oven at 200°c for 30 minutes. My favourite way to cook them is more simple, and connects us with our ancestors; roasting the nut (in their shells) directly in the embers of a campfire. Once cooked, leave to cool for a few minutes then peel the shells off and eat. Other tasty uses for chestnuts are in stuffing, added into brownies or cheesecakes. They add a fantastic sweet nutty taste to anything you add them to, so alternatively you could try pairing them with something salty like a soy sauce glaze, as well as to supplement your sweet dishes.

 

2. Beech (Fagus sylvatica)

Often called the “queen of British trees” Beech are one of our most magnificent trees. They can grow up to, and sometimes exceed 40 meters height. There’s a beech tree in my village that’s so large you can see it from about a mile away, it’s loved by everyone and has such a magnificent canopy, it’s not hard to see why. You often find these trees on very chalky areas, and they can be identified by their grey-brown bark and iconic nuts that grow in October, with spiky basing that splits open to reveal the smooth pyramid shaped nuts. 

beech nuts - tree foraging

Above: Beech nuts are small but worth the effort. A great snack whilst out on a stroll. Inset: Young leaves make a tangy addition to salads in spring.

As well as being beautiful beech trees have two seasons in the year when parts can be harvested for food. Firstly, around May when new leaves emerge they can be eaten straight off the twig or put into salads or sandwiches. They have a tangy, almost acidic flavour. You’re looking for the lighter green slightly hairy leaves, before they darken in colour and develop an unpalatable, waxy surface. 

In October, it’s the beech nuts which drop to the ground and can be collected for our table. The casing (called mast) splits open and will often drop off the tree with the nuts inside meaning it’s relatively easy to collect them, although you may have to rummage around on the ground a little to find the nuts under the leaf litter. Inside the mast can be up to 3 nuts each in their own triangular brown shell.

Beech nuts are a good source of protein, contain lots of healthy oils and taste a little like hazelnuts making them amazing for both sweet and savoury dishes. It’s advised that you don’t eat too many raw as they contains tannins which can cause an upset stomach, although not everyone has a negative reaction to raw beech nuts but it’s best to be cautious. They’re small though, so collecting that many would be quite a feat. Cooking or soaking removes this toxin and makes them safe to eat en masse, so try toasting them to add to salads or using as a cake topping as an alternative to hazelnuts. I like them best as a snack on the go whilst walking.

 

3. Blackthorn (Prunus spinosa)

Blackthorns are a favourite of many as they give us the fruit used to make sloe gin. Around autumn there’s excitement in the foraging community as everyone rushes to make their annual batch of sloe gin ready to replace the previous years which will inevitably be either drunk or given as a Christmas present. A friend proudly declared that this Christmas he’ll be opening a bottle he made five years ago! 

sloes and blackthorn - tree foraging

Above: Everyone has heard of sloe gin, but did you know you can use the gin soaked sloes to make boozy chocolates. We dare you to try it.

The blackthorn tree can be identified by their almost black branches (hence the name) and large thorns which can cause a nasty infection if spiked so be very careful when harvesting your sloes, some thick gloves are recommended! In March the blackthorn is the first tree to make its presence known as it erupts en masse in our hedgerows with a show of white blossom. The flowers make for an incredibly beautiful contrast to the black spines. Blackthorn is a tough old tree with a habit of spreading quickly into open space, making it an unwelcome guest with landowners who like things tidy. It follows that with this tough, thorny tree, that seems to be telling us to “look but don’t touch” it would bear such sour fruits that when eaten raw don’t exactly endear themselves to us. They are worth collecting though as alcohol transforms their flavour.

The blackthorn is part of the plum family so this gives us a clue that there’s some good stuff to be had from the fruits. From September onward the sloes take on a dark blue colour as they ripen. The classic recipe, sloe gin, is made using fresh sloes, pricked with a fork, packed into a jar with gin and sugar. Shake this every day to help the sugar dissolve and then after at least a month (longer is better) strain off the berries and bottle the liquid, ready for a Christmas gift or to go on the sdhelf and left for a year before drinking. Also, did you know that the leaves can also be infused with alcohol and are at their best around June and July.

Interestingly sloe stones have been found at many archaeological sites which suggests our ancestors valued this fruit highly as well; it’s lovely to think that the blackthorn has connected us to our ancestors for thousands of years. Try boiling your sloes down to turn them into a jam or syrup, they’re naturally a little tart so it’s best to have a sweet aspect to each recipe such as reducing with sugar or treacle to make a delicious tart filling. If making sloe gin or other alcohol infusion is something you want to give a go, remember this top tip; try saving your soaked sloes to coat in chocolate. This makes for a perfect present for friends and family at Christmas time.

 

4. Hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna)

I don’t know about you, but I always see the arrival of Hawthorns as the official start of autumn. The iconic red berry a sight you’re likely familiar with as they grow in abundance along roadsides and in hedgerows. Hawthorn trees are one of our most common trees as they can thrive almost anywhere and are popular in hedges as they make a thorny stock-proof barrier which has vigorous regrowth when cut back. Head out to your local green space, you might be surprised by how many hawthorn trees you can find.

hawthorn - tree foraging

Above: They might not taste like much on their own but as a cooking ingredient they work very well. We made spicy hawthorn relish.

Hawthorns in Autumn are easy to identify, with large bunches of deep red oval berries, known as haws. They can be seen from September onward and can persist on the tree right through winter after the leaves have fallen. One of the earliest identifiers for this tree in our calendar year can be seen in early spring when the bright green leaves with between 3-5 jagged lobes, looking somewhat similar to parsley, explode in our hedgerows after the white blossom of blackthorn. In April and May look for a show of beautiful flowers blooming from this tree. They resemble cherry blossom, with a strong scent of almonds, 5 small white petals and pink stamens. 

Back in autumn with the berries; you could eat a single haw and be forgiven for wondering what all the fuss is about as there’s not much taste to them. But that couldn’t be more wrong, this is such a versatile food source that not enough people know about. Where the haws shine is as an ingredient rather than a food on its own. Haws contain a single stone which needs to be removed before they can be eaten. This can be a time consuming process, but the reward is worth it. These berries can be used to make everything from jam, ketchup, relish and even wine; boiling and straining can be a quicker way of removing the stones than individually de-stoning each fruit. Although they’re fairly plain in flavour they have a similar texture to avocados, making them an eco-friendly substitute to use in guacamole.

As well as making some delicious foods, the haws are incredibly good for you. They can increase the blood flow to the heart, helping prevent heart attacks as well as reducing irregular heartbeats. This isn’t a new discovery either, haws have been used to treat heart conditions as early as the 17th century. If you are on heart medication, seek advice form a professional herbalist before eating them.

 

5. Sea Buckthorn (Hippophae rhamnoides)

Sea buckthorn is incredibly beautiful when the tree is fruiting; with gorgeous bunches of bright orange berries surrounded by silvery green leaves that heavily resemble rosemary. The fruit of this tree is citrusy but does require some sweetening as it has a naturally sharp almost bitter flavour, similar to the acidity of a grapefruit. In terms of flavour, this is about as tropical as it gets for native tree foraging. If you don’t mind a bit of work and being spiked by thorns, then you’re in for a treat that packs a mighty punch.

sea buckthorn - tree foraging

Above: If you want a juice that packs a serious punch for both taste and health, try Sea Buckthorn.

Unfortunately, the sea buckthorn isn’t very common and is normally only found near the coastline or in very gravely areas. However, you might find it along roadsides and in retail parks or industrial estates, where it can be planted as cover. If you discover one of these trees locally make a note of it and be sure to give it a visit when it’s fruiting! These beautiful berries come into fruit around September to early October and are best picked after all the berries on the tree turn from green to orange as it’s when they’re at their most ripe. The tricky part of collecting the berries of the sea buckthorn is how prone they are to bursting when picking, meaning you could get juice on your clothes so make sure you’re not wearing your favourite white shirt when collecting these.

There are two main ways you can collect the berries; if you’re not too bothered about the whole berry and are happy with just the juice, which is the best part in my opinion, you can use some very thick rubber gloves to squeeze down a branch to collect the juice into a bucket. This will need straining once you get home to remove any bits of leaf or debris that you’ll also find in your bucket. This is the fastest way to collect the juice, but works best when the berries are a little softer later in the season. Another method is to snip off twigs that have berry clusters. Take them home and leave them outside on a towel or some tissue to allow any creepy crawlies to escape before putting them in a bin liner and bunging them in the freezer overnight. Once the berries are frozen beat the bag to dislodge them from the branch and then pick out the branches and leaves. This is my preferred method.

You can strain the berries to make a nutritious fruit juice, although some sweetening is recommended, try adding honey as a healthier alternative to sugar. To make a cordial, reduce the juice by simmering and add sugar. Dilute with water and serve with ice, or use neat added to sparkling wine to make a sea bucks fizz! As well as being delicious, sea buckthorn hailed as a superfood, being packed with vitamins and minerals such as Vitamin A, B and C and is proven to preventing tumours, ulcers and detoxify the liver.

 

6. Elder (Sambucus nigra)

Whenever I think of summer elderflower cordial always springs to mind. Its subtle sweetness reminds me of hot breezy days. The elder tree has got to be in the top ten wild foods of the UK as it provides two delicacies for us to enjoy. The flowers which bloom in June and the berries which ripen around August to September. If you have a shrub in your garden I would recommend not taking all the flowers as you’ll then be stuck without any berries later on. Leave some to mature and you get to enjoy both harvests.

elderberry - tree foraging

Above: Elderberries are packed full of good things. Our favourite recipe is Elderberry Elixir, made with honey, brandy and warming spices.

Whilst elderberries are easily recognisable, the spray of creamy-white summer flowers are easy to mistake for other similar looking trees. Make sure you’re not accidentally picking flowers from a Rowan or Wayfaring tree as they look similar when in bloom. Get to know the whole tree. The leaves of the elder are jagged around the edge and typically have five large leaflets on each leaf. The flowers themselves are very small and grow in dense bunches that tend to grow upwards in fairly uniform, flat formation. The stems will droop down when the flowers turn into the berries. 

Elderflower cordial is an obvious classic recipe for the elder but there are so many more ways you can use the flowers. Try infusing them into Turkish delight or sorbets for a sweet treat or using them to flavour panna cotta or yoghurt. Don’t feel limited by traditional uses for elderflower cordial either, use the cordial to flavour cakes and tray bakes or add to sparkling wine. 

Come the autumn, the berries are well worth your attention. Not only does their juice taste great but they’re good for our health too, making an excellent immune system booster. Be sure to use any freshly picked berries quickly as they don’t tend to last for very long once they’ve been picked. Try cooking them to make jam, using them to make a coulis for a pudding topping, or mixing with honey and spices to make a warming elderberry elixir – this is our personal favourite. The deep purple syrup is very striking when drizzled on cheesecake. Some more unusual uses for elderberries are to make vinegar and fruit leather.

Do be aware that the seeds in the berries contain a small amount of cyanide, so you don’t want to eat the berries raw, they must be cooked. We remove the seeds and flesh by straining the cooked berries through a muslin cloth.

 

7. Hazel (Corylus avellana)

Hazel, as you can probably guess, gives us the hazelnut; something so commonly used in modern processed foods you may forget that you can forage for them yourself. How does the idea of making your own hazelnut chocolate spread sound? When identifying a hazel, you’re more likely to find one in shrub form rather than a full tree, with several stems sprouting from the base rather than one single trunk. In summer the leaves are large and round with a serrated edge. At the tips of the yellow-brown branches you’ll also see large green buds. When searching for a hazelnuts the best place to look is hedgerows and woodland edges. The nuts tend not to grow as well in deeper woodland as they get shaded out by taller trees.

hazelnuts - tree foraging

Above: Make your own nutty chocolate spread from hazelnuts, if you can beat the squirrels to them.

The best time of year for hazelnuts is the back end of August and into September. When you find them they might appear fairly green. These are unripe but can still be eaten. They are best when the shells have turned nut brown. They tend to grow in clusters and the nuts will have a frilly green bract around them, almost making them look like they’re wearing hats. Ripe nuts will fall from the tree but make sure you crack open the casing of a few nuts before you collect loads as often  the tree will discard any nuts that haven’t been successful to focus on growing others. Nobody wants to go home to find they’ve actually been carrying empty shells.

The other issue to content with is the Grey Squirrel who will harvest all the nuts from your favourite hazel tree before they ripen. Aside from the obvious solution to this problem (squirrel pie anyone?) you could try netting a small tree (easier said than done) or look for a tree in an urban space where squirrels aren’t present. This is where I’ve had the most success myself.

Hazelnuts give us so many possibilities. They make a nutritious addition to cakes and bakes. They compliment chocolate really nicely so you could try incorporating them into a batch of cookies which are sure to go down a treat. For something more low-key you could always sprinkle chopped hazelnuts onto a bowl of muesli or porridge for a healthy breakfast to kickstart your day with plenty of energy. Possibly a more unusual way of using the nuts would be to blend them into some homemade green pesto for extra crunch and depth of flavour, you could even try toasting them first. 

The good news is that these delicious nuts are really good for you as well, supporting a healthy heart and helping to reduce cholesterol. They’re also full of vitamin E which helps maintain a healthy immune system, so there’s no need to feel bad about snacking on this treat. 

 

8. Rowan (Sorbus aucuparia) 

Otherwise known as Mountain Ash, this tree grows not only in high places, as it’s name suggests, but can also be found in hedgerows, scrubland and urban spaces. When flowering, rowan is easily mistaken for the elderflower as they have similar sized white flowers sitting on a flat bed, called an umbel. Once these flowers mature to fruit though the difference becomes very obvious. Rowan produces striking red berries instead of the purple-black of elder. The berries are also larger and persist on the tree long after the elderberries have dried up. Another similar feature are the leaves. Rowan has more leaflets per leaf than elder. Anywhere between 11 – 17 leaflets, opposed to elder typical 5-7.

rowan berries - tree foraging

Above: The most famous recipe for these berries is Rowan Jelly, which includes Crab Apple. It goes great with game.

It’s these juicy red berries that we’re looking to forage. You can find them on the tree as early as late July. September onwards is the main season though. Don’t be tempted to eat these berries right off the tree as they need to be cooked before they’re edible, otherwise they can cause severe indigestion due to the ascorbic acid they contain. The most traditional recipe for this unusual berry is rowan berry jelly, often paired here with crab apples as the pectin tends to thicken the jelly and make sure it sets properly.The crabs are also sweetening the jelly.

To make a jelly add equal quantities of chopped apple and rowan to a pan and simmer in water for 20 minutes. Strain in a muslin cloth over a bowl for at least 4 hours, allowing the juice to drip into the bowl, if you squeeze the mix then the jam will be cloudy. Harvest the liquid and for every 600ml of fluid, add 450g sugar and the juice of one lemon and boil again for 10 minutes. You can test when it’s ready by putting a spoonful on a chilled plate; if the jelly wrinkles when you squidge it with your finger its ready to be put into a sterilised jar. This jelly is perfect to accompany meats or even something like cheesecake to add a tart splash of colour to your pate. 

Interestingly, rowan berry flour is used in Russian baking, which gives bread a slight tang and adds a lot of nutrition. Rowan berries can also be added into chutneys, soups, and ketchups to add a depth of flavour, although it is worth adding a source of sweetness to counteract the tartness they naturally have. This is one berry that I’ve not actually gotten round to cooking with myself at the time of writing, but the jelly recipe is one that has persisted through time so it must be worthwhile. Let me know how you get on.

 

9. Crab Apple (Malus sylvestris)


Crab apples are a bit tricky, as the sourness of these wild fruits tends to catch people off guard. I still remember the shock of biting into one and finding out just how sour they were for the first time! Fortunately, there are still numerous ways you can use the crab apple and sweeten it to make it more digestible.

crab apple - tree foraging

Above: From these humble beginnings, all our cultivated apples came. The crab apple deserves some respect.

Unlike cooking apples, the crab apple is small, often only reaching around 3cm in diameter. This may be why they are so tart, as the flavour is concentrated in a smaller fruit. Crab apple trees are often found in hedgerows, woodland clearings and around farmland. The leaves are ovular with a finely toothed margin. The apples can be stored for several months before they become unusable, keep them somewhere cool and dry and you can always come back to them when your other foraging projects are done.

Like the rowan, crab apple is often used in jellies to offset the sharpness of flavour and I would follow a similar recipe to the rowan berry jelly above. There are many more ways to use them though. They can be sliced and dehydrated in an oven to make dried apple slices, which tend to be a lot sweeter and make a delicious snack on walks or part of a healthy breakfast when mixed with yoghurt and nuts. They can also be used as an ingredient in fruit leather which is always very popular with kids. For grown ups, how about this liqueur? Add layers of sliced crab apples to a jar, sprinkling sugar in between each layer and then covering with vodka. Leave for a year before draining; a long time I know but you should have a bottle ready for the following Christmas.

Other ideas for the crab apple include juicing them, crab apple butter, adding them to pickles or chutneys, or in a mixed fruit pie or crumble. Their tartness adds an unexpected bite to sweet puddings, so give it a go.

 

10. Guelder-Rose (Viburnum opulus)

The guelder-rose  was previously known as swamp elder, which to me is a more appropriate name as it describes this shrubby tree much better. Native to the UK the guelder-rose can be identified in the summer by its serrated three lobed leaves, which are similar looking to maple leaves, and are slightly hairy on the underside. Similar again to the elder and rowan the guelder-rose has umbels of white flowers that bloom around May to July. Look closer and you’ll see that a cluster of larger petalled flowers are surrounded by a ring of smaller flowers. Very striking indeed. In autumn these flowers mature to small shiny red berries, similar in appearance to cranberries which sometimes gives it the nickname European cranberry bush.

guelder rose - tree foraging

Above: A less well known wild food, these berries make a tasty, tangy jam which goes great on toast.

When searching for this berry look in damp places along riversides, scrubland, and hedgerows; it tends to have a habit of spreading if left unattended. When preparing the berries make sure they’re cooked before eating them as they can be slightly toxic if eaten raw, so don’t eat them straight off the tree. The berries need to be prepared in a similar way to rowan, as they are also fairly bitter. They do work well in jellies and jams. Try adding them with rowan berries and crab apples for a tangy addition to toast and porridge or add a dollop to your Sunday roast. Often it’s best to wait for the first frost of the year before collecting the berries as it tends to sweeten them, but you could always pop them in the freezer for the same effect if you can’t wait. I made jam and although when cooking the aroma wasn’t all that appetising, the resulting jam was very good.

As well as being used as a source of food the bark of the tree has been used for hundreds of years to soothe menstrual cramps as the bark has sedative and antispasmodic properties. This is probably due to the chemical viopudial, a compound that lowers blood pressure relaxes smooth muscle, which also means it’s useful in alleviating hiccups and stomach aches. However, it is worth saying that there have been no medical trials to confirm these properties or in what quantities it should be consumed, so I wouldn’t advise just peeling off bits of bark to use, especially if you’re not confident on your identification. Seek the advice of a professional herbalist if you want to take this further.

 

Where Can You Find These Trees?

Now this all sounds good on paper but how you do go about recognising these tree species and finding the right habitats where they grow?

I have created a FREE online Tree Identification course called Kickstart Your Tree ID Skills, which you can enroll on today and start improving your skills so you can find these wild foods for yourself. The course will also show you how to identify trees at other times of the year; winter, spring and summer. Here you will learn about buds, flowers, leaves, bark and other useful identifying signs so you can really get to know our native trees all year round. Sound good to you? Register for free right here.

free tree identification course

Sign up to our free course today and watch videos, download cheat sheets and access photo galleries.

You can also download a copy of my FREE Autumn Tree Guide which you can view on your phone whilst out and about. It features many of the species in this blog with quality pictures of the fruits, berries and nuts. You can grab your copy of that guide right here.

So, there’s my list, not so much a definitive top ten, as there are a couple of omissions here of native trees which produce some fantastic wild foods at times of the year other than autumn. Perhaps I’ll make that absolute top ten list later down the line. Certainly birch sap syrup, wych elm seeds wild cherries are all worth a mention.

I hope you found this article inspiring and I’d love to hear if you make anything with the wild foods featured. If you want more good stuff from us you could subscribe to our YouTube Channel where we post videos about trees, wild food and nature connection.

Happy foraging,

James

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

how to identify trees in autumn

Identify Autumn Trees Like a Pro

Autumn is a beautiful time to be out in the woods, with all the fantastic colours our trees give us. But many people struggle to really know what they’re looking at. Can you tell your beech from your birch, or your alder from your elder? I’ve been on a mission over the past few years to build my tree ID skills and I’ve brought all that experience together in an online training course, which will take you from clueless to confident in your own tree knowledge. In this blog I want to share with you some of my top tips for really getting to know your trees in autumn.

Autumn is a season where many of the leaves we could be familiar with are changing, so we need to look closely at what’s going on and also start relying on some other features to make a positive ID.

I’ve made a video showing you how to recognise our native field maple (Acer campestre) in the season of autumn. Its a tree that many folks get confused with sycamore or the many other non-native maples which can be found across the UK.

If you liked this video and would like more good stuff then you can sign up to my new online training programme, The Complete Tree ID Course. It’s totally FREE to enroll on the introductory course Kickstart Your Tree ID Skills

ENROLL ON THE COURSE NOW

When you join the free course you will also get tree ID videos for ash and hazel in autumn.

tree id cheat sheets: ash in autumn

Join the online course and get seasonal Tree ID Cheat Sheets for many British tree species. Download them to your mobile device or print them off.

So, let’s talk about a few things to look out for at this time of year with my top tips for identifying trees in autumn…

 

Look for consistent colour when the leaves change.

Although many trees show a range of golds, yellows and reds at this time of year, some tree species give an even display of a dominant colour in autumn. Once you’re familiar with that, it can be recognised from a distance before you even get anywhere near the tree. In the video on field maple here you will have seen how that tree produces an even display of bright yellow across all the leaves. This is in contrast to sycamore which typically doesn’t give a show like this.

hornbeam in autumn

Let’s play ‘Spot the Hornbeam.’ The tree gives a reliably even display of yellow at this time of year.

Hornbeam (Carpinus betulus) is another native tree which gives an even display of yellow across the whole tree. This can be really useful when differentiating it from beech (Fagus sylvatica), which is a tree is shares a lot of similarities with. Lucky for us, beech leaves don’t turn a bright yellow anywhere as evenly. Look out for consistently yellow leaves on Birch trees also.

Red is a colour associated with leaves in autumn but in reality there are very few native tree species out in our countryside that give us a good show of red. So if you’re seeing this colour strongly across a tree or shrub it can only be one of a few species; Guelder-rose (Viburnum opulus), Dogwood (Cornus sanguinea) and Spindle (Euonymus europaeus).

guelder rose in autumn

There are few native trees in the UK which give a show of red, Guelder-rose is one of them.

Look at WHEN Leaves Fall

Certain tree species drop their leaves much earlier than others. Ash (Fraxinus excelsior) is a great example of this. Strangely, it’s also one of the last trees to come into leaf in late Spring, so they don’t hang about long. Once you look, you might notice ash looking pretty bare as early as late September. So, if we take that feature and use it when we’re looking at a bunch of trees from a distance in autumn, if you’re seeing a tree with bare branches when others around it are still well leaved then you could well be looking at an ash.

ash tree in autumn

The ash tree here clearly stands out from the crowd as most of its leaves have already fallen.

Also, it’s worth knowing that young beech and oak (Quercus spp.) trees often hold onto their brown leaves right through winter. So at the back end of autumn, if a broadleaf tree still has its leaves, it’s probably one of those two.

 

Know Your Fruits, Nuts , Seeds & Berries

Autumn is, of course, the time for an abundance of fruit and nuts in our hedgerows. For many of our natives this can be the season where they really shine and become visible to us, standing out from the crowd. A great show of berries or fruit can take centre stage, such as with the crab apple (Malus sylvestris) with it’s branches heavy with small, green/yellow apples.

When it comes to the hazel (Corylus avellana) you might think that the familiar hazelnut would be the thing to look out for in autumn, however these nuts can be pretty unreliable and by mid-autumn they’ve usually already all been snaffled by the squirrels, birds and mice. The good news is that there is another key feature you can look for on the hazel at this time of year which is much more reliable. But rather than tell you here, I’ll show you….

I’ve made a video all about Identifying Hazel in Autumn as part of the free course Kickstart Your Tree ID Skills, so if you want to check that out just follow the links in this blog. You’ll also see my top hazelnut foraging tips in that video too.

If you found this interesting and want to know more, you can learn my 3 Key Principles of Tree ID which you can apply to any tree, and lots more top tips and techniques by signing up to my FREE introductory course Kickstart Your Tree ID Skills.

REGISTER FOR THE FREE COURSE HERE

Happy tree hunting folks.

 

The Complete Tree ID Course

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