Hey there buddy…

Male and Female parts of Hazel

Identifying what the flora is in our natural environment is a huge part of bushcraft and it leads to a journey of learning how to process and utilise the useful materials through the changing seasons. Tree identification is a broad subject and one that can be very daunting when you start to learn, but the important thing is just to get started with learning a few common and wide spread tress at a time. I recommend visiting your favorite locations throughout the seasons so that you can learn new trees at the different stages of growth. This time of year, is especially daunting as there are less identification features to go on especially for deciduous trees, but I maintain that this is simply a challenge and will help hone your observational skills. In this blog we will look at the buds of a few widespread and common deciduous trees and their distinguishing features.

Our native Hazel – Corylus avellana, in the Betulaceae family, is a very common sight in woodlands and hedgerows up and down Britain. In medieval times the hazel coppice was a valuable resource, the split rods were weaved into walls, before a horse hair and clay mixture was stuck on, and the poles were used in hurdle production to enclose livestock.

Hazel – Corylus avellana, in the Betulaceae family
Hazel – Corylus avellana, in the Betulaceae family.

Hazel has a natural habit of producing multiple stems which has been exploited through history to encourage this further by cutting to produce straight poles. This is known as coppicing and is a traditional woodsman practice carried out in the dormant season when the tree has stopped growing and before the sap begins to rise. It is normally done in rotations of typically 3- 5-year cycles to allow the vigor to regenerate in the plant and the length of timber to be useable. It allows sun light to reach the woodland floor, which in turn encourages new flora to grow and thus supports the health and vitality of woodland ecology. Hazel is said to support the largest range of invertebrate species at 230 and the habitats that it creates are certainly an integral part of woodlands I have encountered.

Hazel buds are compact, with red-green scales and have a distinctive hairiness on the stems.

Hazel buds are compact, with red-green scales and have a distinctive hairiness on the stems
Hazel buds are compact, with red-green scales and have a distinctive hairiness on the stems.

The other key identification features to confirm a positive identification are the male and female parts of the plant that are visible at this time of year. The male catkins have been visible since the end of last year and slowly developing to allow their pollen to be released and captured by the small, red female parts called styles, protruding from the flower buds. The more female flowers produced and pollinated the better the chance of a good crop of hazelnuts in early autumn.

Male and Female parts of Hazel
Male and Female parts of Hazel.

Our native Ash – Fraxinus excelsior, in the Oleaceae family, is a common sight in woodlands up and down Britain. In history ash has been revered for its flexibility and strength. It was traditionally prized for tool handles, boat frames and cart axles. Interestingly it is one of the only hardwoods that will burn in the green due to its very low moisture content. Further more it is considered an excellent fire wood as the end of the Classic poem by Lady Celia Congreve from the 1930’s states “But Ash wood wet and Ash wood dry a King may warm his slippers by.” It certainly is having a hard time at the moment with Chalara ash dieback and could become a rare sight if the scientist can’t identify and propagate new strains of Ash that are resistant to this devastating pathogen. 

Ash has one of the most distinctive buds, arranged in opposite pairs they are black and really stand out against the smooth grey bark.

Ash – Fraxinus excelsior, in the Oleaceae family
Ash – Fraxinus excelsior, in the Oleaceae family.

Interestingly the young shoots also have a tendency to curve upwards which can help with identification from a distance.

Sycamore – Acer pseudoplatanus, in the family Sapindaceae, is a very common deciduous tree in our woodlands. It is in the Maple group, but is an introduced species unlike Field maple – Acer campestre. It is a prolific selfseeder which accounts for it being dominant in many woodland environments that I frequent, but interestingly they tend not to be long lived in the way an Oak tree would be. I have seen some splendid large specimens over the years but they tend to be individuals rather than numerous. They are renowned for their ability to attract aphids which are a good food source for bird life. The wood from sycamore is odourless and tasteless making it good for cooking utensils. Its buds are arranged in opposite pairs and have a slightly egg shape. The bud scales are green with a small amount of brown on the tips.

Sycamore – Acer pseudoplatanus, in the family Sapindaceae
Sycamore – Acer pseudoplatanus, in the family Sapindaceae.

The bark is very distinctive on a mature Sycamore if you are lucky enough to have one in your locality.

Sycamore bark
Sycamore bark.

Blackthorn – Prunus spinosa, in the family Rosaceae, is a very common native tree. Its renowned for its blossom which is always the first to break cover, its fierce thorns on blackish stems are unmistakable in the hedgerow. It perhaps should not come as a surprise that it is thorny by its common name, but it is in the plant family Rosaceae which contains many thorny plants including the later flowering Hawthorn also known as ‘Maytree’ which gives you the order of flowering within the season. Its creamy white, abundant flowers appear on bare stems before the leaves and of course the sloes that it produces in autumn are important in sloe gin. It provides great habitat for wildlife with its impenetrable, thorny growth and is a good source of safe nesting for birds that like to be a few metres from the ground. Its buds are small, brown and knobbly appearing up and down the stems.

Blackthorn – Prunus spinosa, in the family Rosaceae
Blackthorn – Prunus spinosa, in the family Rosaceae.

Beech – Fagus sylvatica, in the family Fagaceae is native to Britain with a strong hold in the south East of England where it thrives on the chalky soils. Historically Beech timber was used in wood turning, furniture making and joinery. In the poem I referred to earlier it is described as “Beech wood fires burn bright and clear if the logs are kept a year”. In Bushcraft we teach our students to beware of making camp under Beech trees as they are renowned for shedding limbs without warning, thus earning themselves the title of ‘Widow makers’. Mature specimens create lots of shade beneath that excludes other plants so may look appealing as a potential spot for the night, but beware! Beech buds are one of the easiest to identify. They have a very distinctive, brown, cigar shaped buds.

Beech – Fagus sylvatica, in the family Fagaceae
Beech – Fagus sylvatica, in the family Fagaceae.

They also have a tendency to hold some of last years leaves, which is another helpful identification feature of this tree.

These are just a few of the useful trees a woodsman should know. I recommend getting to know the ones in your regular walking spots first, before you branch out to other areas! Invest in a field guide and get into the habit of making notes on the details that you observe for your personal reference, and “hey there buddy” if you can learn trees at this time of year you can learn them at any time of year!!!  

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