Tag Archives | Woodland flora

Family walk through Penn Wood

One of my favourite times each month – the opportunity to guide a few families through a local woodland in the Chilterns. Blessed with wonderful sunshine, it was a lovely May afternoon to be exploring Penn Woods. Managed by the Woodland Trust, it is one of the largest ancient woodlands in the Chilterns Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) totalling over 435 acres!

Tree hugging - using our senses to recognise a mighty oak

Tree hugging – using our senses to recognise a mighty oak

We started our woodland walk from the church car park – heading out along the main foot path past the beautiful flint clad church and the newly installed Woodland Trust signage, welcoming visitors to the woods. Our first stop, stinging nettles – a plant that so many fear and yet, it wasn’t long before everyone was keen to look at them closer, especially the children.

Having demonstrated how to pick them without getting stung, I quickly showed how to juice the doc leave, the green liquid being used to relieve the inevitable stings! Many of the children were keen to try, the younger ones being guided to the doc leaves and the older ones picking nettles and then applying doc!

Tips for using stinging nettles

  • Always pick vibrant, healthy nettles, avoid areas that may have been polluted or fouled, be that by dogs being walked, farm run-offs or similar and gather the nettle tops – the top 4 to 6 leaves are usually best
  • To pick them with bare hands – seize the nettle, hold it firmly, should you be tender handed it will sting you for sure – gloves are probably a good option
  • Cooking will kill off the stings and stop them from stinging you
  • There are lots of vitamins in stinging nettles (more here)
  • Nettles make a lovely earthy tea – I like them when they are green, but you can dry them if you wish
  • They are good stirred into a classic risotto or as a vegetable, a soup or gazpacho
  • Stinging nettle tempura – I was serving them up at the recent Great Missenden Food Festival

Tree hugging – developing a relationship with a tree

My favourite tree, the mighty oak. I love it’s strength, the way it spreads its limbs out wide, reaching out across the sky. There’s the deep furrows in the gnarly bark and the beautiful curvy leaves that look like clouds as you hold them against the sky. A wonderful tree and great to see the children giving it a big hug.

Amazement at the amount of pond life - loving the tadpoles and water boatmen

Amazement at the amount of pond life – loving the tadpoles and water boatmen

We spent time looking at the many beech trees. Most of the buds have burst open to reveal their soft new leaves, oval in shape with a little tail and hairy around the edges. They are good to add to a woodland salad and a few were sampled by the children and their parents.

Fascination with the water boatmen

There was excitement around the pond, as one-by-one many tadpoles were spotted in the water, and then fascination with the water boatmen, as if by magic, they were skating across the surface of the pond.

Exploring the pond at Penn Woods

Exploring the pond at Penn Woods

Whilst some of the children explored the other side of the pond, keen to get closer to the waters edge and find routes that would just about support them, we climbed across the newly formed log-jetty. It was more solid than before, with the end staked to hold the logs in place. Still we didn’t want the children falling in – it’s not that deep but they would have got very muddy (none this time).

Identifying trees - using smell to recognise the fallen cedar

Identifying trees – using smell to recognise the fallen western red cedar

Climbing in the trees

One of the large western red cedars had fallen, not far from the pond, it had lost a huge part of its trunk which had crashed down on the surrounding trees. The children were quick to spot an opportunity for climbing and enjoyed playing along the long branches now just a foot or two above the ground.

Here was a great opportunity to engage our sense of smell to recognise this cedar – the foliage was crushed and the citrus smell revealed, just one of the ways to get to know this wonderful tree. Western red cedars have with a deep red-brown bark that is relatively soft to the touch, almost sponge like, a deep green foliage, and they tower above other trees, like a lesser version of the great American sequoias.

Identifying plants - checking that it's wood sorrel before eating!

Identifying plants – checking that it’s wood sorrel before eating!

On our return journey through the woodlands, we spent time getting to know the lovely larch – it’s foliage in little tufts, that are soft to touch. Unlike the spruce, fir and pines, the larch looses its leaves in winter, leaving the characteristic little stubs along the twigs.

Getting to the heart of wood sorrel

And then in an opening along the woodland path, there was an abundance of wood sorrel. Another opportunity to engage our senses. Many of the children recognised it’s shape as being similar. We carefully examined the plant, looking at the three heart shaped leaves and the lovely white flowers, with faint pink lines within. Then it was time to taste a few – first checking each one was the correct plant and not eating to many, just in case the oxalic acid (found in many plants) unset the stomach – moderation is a good thing!

More woodland walks

Thank you to the families who join me on this lovely May walk in Penn Woods and for granting permission for a few photos – much appreciated. If you’d like to join one of my family friendly guided woodland walks with your family, please check future dates and register here!

May’s guided woodland walk

It was a beautiful day for a walk in the woods, bright, sunny and warm with a little dappled shade here and there. All the trees had foliage, after the cold winter months looking at the buds, it was lovely to see the leaves sprouting from the buds and flowers forming.

Families gathering wild garlic in May

Families gathering wild garlic in May

In April we looked closely at the wild garlic (ransoms), learning how to identify this tasty plant. This month everyone was looking forward to seeing the wild garlic in flower – and they weren’t disappointed, there were lots of flowers. Some leaves and flowers were gathered to make pesto and to add zome zing to salads.

Young beech leaves

Young beech leaves

The children remembered the pointer buds of the beech, but could not see them bursting into leaf. Being so young and fresh, you can clearly see the fine downy hairs around the edge of the leaves. Whilst a little chewy, they have a nice flavour and are good with other leaves in a salad – a few leaves were tried.

Beech flowers

Beech flowers

Taking a closer look at the beech foliage, we could see the flowers, the male flower out on a stem, hairy / downy.

Goat Willow / Pussy Willow / Sallow in flower

Goat Willow / Pussy Willow / Sallow in flower

The flowers of the goat willow are now fully formed and it won’t be long until they burst with blossom and become fluffy like a pussies tail!

Cockooflower / Lady's-smock

Cockooflower / Lady’s-smock

So easily missed, the Cockooflower or lady’s-smock is a beautiful little flower, it’s flowers sitting a top a slender tall stem, with purple veins radiating out across four pale petals.

Dog violets

Dog violets

Often seen hidden around the margins of hedgerows or edges of gardens, the dog violet has a stunning purple-blue flowers with darker coloured veins. We found a carpet of these violets out in full sunshine, as vivid as the bluebells but sitting close to the ground, nestled within the grass.

Thank you to everyone who joined me for this lovely woodland walk, it was nice to see familiar faces and meet new families too, especially the youngest to attend the walk at just 7 weeks!

Join us for a Free Family Friendly Guided Woodland Walk

Lovely nettle tea

Spring has arrived and so have those lovely nettles – oh yes they are lovely! We have been conditioned as children to avoid their painful sting, but nettles offer so much and this is why they protect themselves from animals, including us that will forage and consume these wonderful plants.

Why should you see nettles in a new light? Well for one they are really good for you, nettles are nutritious and even better than spinach! Nettles are a source of protein, have traces of fat, contain more vitamin C than oranges, have quantities of vitamin B, calcium, potassium, iron and more.

Nettles springing up in the woodlands

Nettles springing up in the woodlands

It is possible to pick nettles with your bare hands without suffering the sting, but using gloves will probably be a more satisfactory experience. If you fancy trying, just follow this verse by the 17th century writer Aaron Hill – “tender-handed stroke a nettle, and it stings you for your pains, grasp it like a man of mettle, and it soft as silk remains”. Firmly grasping the nettle really does work, however there is every chance that you stroke one of the nettles next to it, so be warned!

When out foraging for nettles, it’s best to pick the nettle tops; pinch or snip off the top 4-6 leaves. You can safely harvest nettles throughout the year, but choose young nettles shoots in shady, ideally damp spots. Later in the year, it will be best to look for new growth, perhaps where earlier tall nettle stalks have been cut back. Obviously, as you would with any foraging, please avoid areas that may have been polluted or fouled, be that by dogs being walked, farm run-offs or similar.

How do you avoid the sting when eating? Just applying heat will ‘kill’ the sting and produce leaves that are safe to consume.

For your first experience of nettles, why not try a cup of nettle tea? Pick a few nettle tops (3 or 4 should be fine) and place them in a mug. Then add boiling water, leave for a few minutes to steep. I usually leave them for 10 minutes to get a deeper flavour and enjoy a cup of refreshing, slightly earthy nettle tea. You may wish to wash the nettles first, but I am happy to just add the boiling water to make it safe to drink.

A lovely mug of nettle tea

A lovely mug of nettle tea

What else can you do with nettles? I love to fold them into a risotto or use them as a vegetable, rather like spinach with a knob of butter or to make a gazpacho. Later in the year, I use the fibres from the long stems to make string or rope, there are many other uses for this ever so versatile plant.

Next time you’re out for a walk, consider picking a few nettles to make a cup of tea, pan fry them with a little butter or fold into a risotto – if you do, it would be great to hear your experiences and / or perhaps share your pictures!

Mothers day – family friendly guided woodland walk

Mothers Day - Family friendly woodland walk

Mothers Day – Family friendly woodland walk

A few of the regular attending families had asked if they could bring their mothers along for the walk – what a lovely idea and it meant we had three generations enjoying a walk together! There is something quite special about taking families out for a walk in the woods. With our own children now young men, it’s lovely to see other peoples children enjoy the simple things in life and be inquisitive about nature.

Whilst not yet Spring, it felt like the end of Winter was behind us and Spring was definitely around the corner. We had another lovely Sunday morning walking through the woods, the weather was kind to us again, with a chill in the air and a little sunshine to remind us of the changing seasons.

As well as looking at creepy crawlies, shapes of leaves, sticks and stones, here are some of the many things we looked at in detail as we wondered through the woods.

Beech-buds - long and pointy like arrow tips

Beech-buds – long and pointy like arrow tips

Stinging nettles - hollow needles of silica

Stinging nettles – hollow needles of silica

We looked at the buds of the huge beech trees –  their pointy buds, sharp to the touch, long and narrow rather like an arrow tip. We carefully looked at the stinging nettles, getting up close to see the ‘hundreds’ of silica needles just waiting to sting the unwary. Stinging nettles are fabulous plants, packed full of goodness, great for teas, soups and you can make string from the stalk fibres later in the year too.

Silver birch, horizontal lines & flaky bark

Silver birch, horizontal lines & flaky bark

Pussy willow - fluffy buds

Pussy willow – fluffy buds

There were some lovely silver birch, we looked closely at the bark, it’s silvery whiteness, the horizontal lines (lenticel) that allow the tree to breath, and the flaky bark that can be used to light campfires. The pussy or goat willow was already blossoming, the bud bursting open, soon they will be fluffy like a cats tail.

It was yet another lovely walk, a beautiful morning, nature awakening for Spring and wonderful families, all young at heart.

If you’d like to join the next walk, just register your family via this page: Family Friendly Guided Woodland Walk they are free to attend – if you have any questions do get in touch.

Field studies fold-outs

Natural history is an integral part of Bushcraft. In fact without an appreciation and understanding of flora and fauna, would really be missing out in a big way. Bushcraft covers a wide range of topics, I like to think that these fall broadly into the three areas of teaching; outdoor living skills, natural history and woodland crafts. There areas all overlap. To be successful in living outdoors you need to understand at least some natural history, for instance which plants provide good tinder. Studying trees and plants help you appreciate the environment you are in and perhaps understand a little of it’s history. Similarly, when carving a spoon or fashioning a pot knowing which tree the wood came from or the properties of the bark you are using is fundamental to  the object you create.

I’m fortunate to have a pretty good selection of books and field guides from which to reference and study. So what would I recommend you put in your pack when out for a walk?

I’d recommend a fold-out field studies guide from the Field Studies Council. They produce a wonderful selection; fungi, woodland plants, trees, British mammal tracks and signs and many, many more.

The field studies fold-out guides are beautifully put together with flow charts, clear pictures and reference information to help you identify what you are looking at. They are practical too, arguably more so that a reference book, because they laminated, so they are weather proof and robust, just what you need when out on a county walk or ramble.

Field studies guide fold-outs

A few of the wonderful field studies fold-outs provided by the Field Studies Council – check out their website and buy some!