Knowing Yew

What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger; but how aware are you of the hidden dangers of trees?

Don’t panic though; over my next couple of articles I hope to share knowledge that will make time in the forest even safer.

Yew, tree, taxus
Yew growing in a garden

One of nature’s oldest species of tree is yew. It’s a tree that breaks the rules. It’s classed as a conifer but behaves like a broadleaf tree. It has needles for leaves but has fruit instead of cones; its wood is hard, not soft like other conifers; and most importantly for those foraging for food, the needles, wood, bark and seeds are deadly poisonous.

Yew is also useful. Its hard wood is wonderful for making longbows and made England’s medieval archers a force feared by their enemies.

Although naturally it evolved as an understory tree, thriving below the woodland canopy, yew can be found most often in old church yards. It was grown in cemeteries as a source of bow wood, safe from farm animals.

Churchyard, graveyard, tree, Yew
Old churchyards are a good place to find yew

And churchyards are a good place to find yew and learn to recognise it. In autumn look for red fruit (like berries with a hole in the base) on a tree with deep-green 3/4 inch long needles.

Yew, aril, arils, berries
Yew fruit are called “Arils”

The greatest risks from yew for bushcrafters and survivors are from mistaking the tree for a pine when making needle tea or carving kitchenware from the wood. (I’ve heard of a yew kuksa and it’s owner didn’t know why he had a terrible headache after drinking from it)

Even normally edible fungi such as “Chicken of the Woods” are avoided by foragers when growing on yew, such is the reputation of its toxicity.

Many foragers don’t pick fungi from yews

However, treated with respect, yew is a tree we can use. As a raw material for a survival bow, as cover or shelter when out in the woods, it has value. Whether you want to use it or avoid it, learn to recognise it.

Further reading:

Wikipedia: Yew (Taxus baccata)

Mythology and Folklore of Yew : Trees For Life

Richard Head : Making a Longbow (YouTube)

The legal bit

This blog is written for entertainment purposes and is not intended to be an authoritative guide to all aspects of yew trees.

The author advises researching reputable websites and publications for further information.

Do not take trees, plants or wood without the owner’s permission.

Spahgnum Moss as a Healing Dressing

During the hell of trench warfare modern field dressings gave way to the rediscovery of a resource used for at least 800 years.

Shortages of cotton first led to the German Army using sphagnum moss, a variety of bog moss, to stem bleeding in wounds. British doctors soon discovered the dressings on captured prisoners of war and put them to use.

So what made this moss so effective as a treatment for terrible injuries; and how can it be of use today in an emergency?


Shagnum moss grows in acidic wet places. As such it has a great ability to soak up water. It does this by being made up of a network of tubes that fill with the water. If dried out, either by air drying or in an emergency having the water squeezed out by hand, those tubes will be ready to absorb liquids, including blood.


The fine lattice of leaves also provides a scaffold for blood to clot and stem bleeding.

Finally, the slightly acidic nature of sphagnum gives it a mildly antiseptic quality, helping it to prevent infection.

There are many species of this moss and its well worth learning how to recognise them and recognise the habitats where they grow. You will be following in the footsteps of generations of our ancestors.

Nature’s Aspirin

Willow is well-known as the natural ancestor of aspirin. In fact this is wrong; pharmaceutical aspirin is actually descended from Meadowsweet (Filipendula ulmaria)

This willow has been pollarded. A traditional way of harvesting regular crops of withys, timber and bark from the tree dating back to prehistoric times.

Willow can still lay claim to the title of Nature’s aspirin. Salicylic acid, an important product of digesting aspirin, occurs in willow bark and can be extracted by making a willow bark tea.

It is attributed with properties as a painkiller, a treatment for acne and for thinning the blood to prevent heart attacks and strokes.

To investigate willow tea and it’s preparation I harvested some willow from a damp area of woodland. This is the favoured home of Goat Willow or sallow (Salix caprea) which is quick-growing and easy to find.


I only needed to cut a single stem. Willows strike root when pushed into damp ground so I planted my off-cuts back in the thicket. It was good to know I was not only harvesting from nature but also giving it something back.

To make the tea it stripped a short length of stem, about three years old and chopped the strips of bark into small pieces.


Once in the pot I kept myself busy turning my remaining willow stalks into tent pegs for future use.

I boiled the bark for about twenty minutes.

Once boiled the bark clippings sank making it easy to pour my Willow Tea into a mug.

Willow Tea, looking rather like dirty water in the mug, the remaing bark chippings in the pan and three tent pegs I whittled from the spare wood.

…and the result?

It doesn’t look the most appetising drink but the flavor was subtle and tasted surprisingly like spruce needles. In fact I can honestly say, Willow Tea tastes of Christmas trees.

As for its medicinal properties, I didn’t have a headache and I have no way to tell. It was however, a fantastic way to connect with the past by making this simplest of age-old potions.

The legal bit: Please speak to your doctor before treating maladies with medicinal plants. Be certain of your identification of anything you forage before you use it and take advice from experienced foragers and herbal practitioners.

Never pick rare plants or from a protected site. Only forage plants that are abundant in an area and then in quantities that will not affect their population.

This blog is written for entertainment and inspiration ; it is not intended as an authoritative, exhaustive or detailed guide to plants or their uses.


If you are interested in this subject I advise further research using reputable books and websites

Medicine in the Verge

What healing properties do the plants on your doorstep hold?

I took an evening stroll down a pleasant but unremarkable country lane this evening. As every spring, the wild flowers are racing to compete for the sun’s light and to complete their annual cycle before winter.

I’ve learned the names of many of these plants and I’ve learned how they grow. What I wondered, is what healing properties they may have. The different chemicals in plants have been used for millennia as medicines. Maybe our modern medicines are more refined but many effective drugs are extracted from plants or synthesised to replicate the molecules found in them.

Garlic Mustard (Alliaria petiolata) is coming to the end of its season but still green and although its scent has now faded somewhat can be found in hedges and verges.

In the past it has been used as an antiseptic and a treatment for asthma. It can be used as a poultice for ulcers and cuts.

Dandelion (Taraxum officinale) is one of the few wildflowers almost everyone recognises. As well as having the property of restoring childhood memories of blowing its seeds from the “Dandelion Clock” its sap has been used for treating corns, verrucas and warts.

White Dead Nettle (Lamium album) has been used to make a tea for treating excessive periods and haemorrhoids.

It can be told apart from Stinging Nettles by its bold white flowers that whorl in clusters around the stem.

Ribwort Plantain (Plantago lanceolata) grows amongst the grass in many places. As well as containing Vitamin-C it has been used as a tea for chesty coughs and colds.

The Stinging Nettle (Urticaria dioica) is as useful as it is unpopular with anyone who has encountered its stings.

It’s medicinal uses include lowering blood pressure and its iron rich properties have led to it being used to treat anaemia.

All these potentially useful plants within half a mile of my home.

The legal bit: Please speak to your doctor before treating maladies with medicinal plants. Be certain of your identification of anything you forage before you use it and take advice from experienced foragers and herbal practitioners.

Never pick race plants or from a protected site. Only forage plants that are abundant in an area and then in quantities that will not affect their population.

This blog is written for entertainment and inspiration ; it is not intended as an authoritative, exhaustive or detailed guide to plants or their uses. If you are interested in this subject I advise further research using reputable books and websites.

Spring With Energy

Winter was almost like the olden days of fable. In other words, we had snow; quite a bit of it. More than that, it was long. 

Spring has arrived and life that was dormant appears impatient to catch up. This shouldn’t be a surprise. Evolution has adapted species to deal with a variety of conditions;the fact that wildflowers are now racing to complete their annual cycle is  evidence of that.


For us this means a wonderful wild flower display. I’ve been out and about today. Everywhere I looked, wildflowers are Blooming.

Here are some I saw, all within a mile of each other:

IMG_4898[1]Field forget me not (Myosotis arvensis)


IMG_4915[1]English primrose (Primula vulgaris)


IMG_4904[1]Dog violet (Viola riviana)


IMG_4908[1]Marsh marigold (Caltha palustris)


IMG_4903[1]Lesser celandine (Ficara verna)


IMG_4916[1]Oppsosite leaved golden saxifrage (Chrysoplenium oppositfolium)


IMG_4906[1]Wood sorrel (Oxalis griffithii)

IMG_4900[1]Garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata)


IMG_4899[1]Bluebell (Hyacynthoides non-scripta)



Bilberry (Vaccinium myrtillus)

Thanks for reading and I hope you get out into nature to enjoy this spring’s marvellous display.




Something different… Alpacas

Today I’m visiting the National Alpaca Show.

This Peruvian relative of camels is surprisingly popular, its coat making a fine lanolin-free wool, much softer than sheep wool and is in demand from the fashion industry.

“Cosy by Luciano” and Catherine Price exhibiting their wares.

The show has much in common with other agricultural shows but the range of trade stands reflects that this is an industry dominated by smallholder businesses.

Judging of competitions for the best animals and fleeces ensure that new generations of alpacas will continue to produce a high quality product.

However, my youngest informs me that the most important thing about alpacas is that they are adorable.

After a long dormant time

I haven’t blogged for ages but maybe the return of energy to nature is having a knock-on effect upon me.

Today I decided to travel paths near home that I haven’t walked for at least a couple of years, some many more. I was rewarded by encountering some remarkable trees.

This oak has suffered over the years but is clearly a good home to many bugs and grubs. In turn they provide food for birds such as woodpecker, nuthatches and treecreepers.

This ash recently fell but its surviving stump tell the story of a long life, probably pollarded to provide timber at a nearby small holding.

This amazing birch was probably part of a hedge. It might have been layed as part of that hedge but it appears the other trees in the hedge died a long time ago.

There are lots of good side effects to this long winter. Today one has been that the lengthening days gave me time to explore and the slow spring meant I could see the shape of these trees, un -obscured by spring growth.

Happy wanderings.

Colour in Clover

Clover may be the only wildflower more famous for its leaves than its blooms. 

The three lobed shamrock leaves are symbolic of all things Irish but this widespread family of plants grows here too; and right now it’s “Pom-Pom” flowers are at our feet. 

Clover grows wild today but before commercial fertilisers were common, farmers would plant it because of its ability to capture nitrogen, the main component of many fertilisers; and fix it in the soil. 

Two clovers are most common in England. Red and White Clover. White clover is more often associated with species poor, cultivated and fertilised land, whereas its red cousin is often an indicator of species rich grassland where other wild flowers thrive. 

It is possible from time to time, to find both growing together 

Red Campion, Pink Star of the Woods and Hedges

As spring progresses, many wildflowers are overtaken by vigorous plants such as nettle, bramble and grasses. 

Where the soil is rich more colourful wild flowers may be fewer now but a few stars shine out against the verdant background. 

AS a boy, after learning the names of bluebell, daisy and dandelion, the next wildflower I came to know was Red Campion (Silene dioca)

Growing up to three feet tall it can keep up with all but the most vigorous competitors in the race for sunlight that plants engage in. It’s a common and welcome sight in hedges and woods. 

Look closely and there are two types of flower. Male with twisted yellow anthers and female, with delicate, greener stamen.


Hogweed (and cow parsley)

Hogweed is taking over the verges and woodland edges. 

The good news is, there’s nothing wrong. At around the same time Cow Parsley goes to seed and its delicate white flowers fade, it is succeeded by its cousin, hogweed. 

Both are members of the carrot and parsley family; and by far their most common members in the British countryside. 

I was at the Bushcraft Show this weekend and found the two growing together in a hedgerow. The Cow Parsley is at the end of its flowering period, the Hogweed at the start. 

The easiest way to tell the difference between the two is that Cow Parsley has more delicate, feather-like leaves, Hogweed’s are more robust, thicker and larger. 

There are nearly forty members of the carrot family growing wild in Britain. Thirty of them look very similar. Some have irritants in their sap and some are poisonous; some are delicious wild food. This makes them a very useful group to know; but to know well. 

I’ll be adding posts about the different members of this family as I encounter them over summer.