Yew trees are highly poisonous and ingesting almost any part of the plant can kill, but anti-cancer compounds can be harvested from the leaves and used by scientists in the manufacture of medicine.
The Romans believed that yew trees grew in hell.
Our ancient ancestors made longbows from yew wood; a very early example of one such weapon found in Dumfries and Galloway is believed to date back around 6,000 years.
Since the Second World War the UK has lost 98% of its wildflower meadows - that's an area the size of Wales (yeah yeah everything’s the size of Wales. If you prefer, imagine 14 million rugby pitches).
Bees, butterflies and rare ground nesting birds like larks, corncrakes and curlews all need wildflower meadows - basically much of the UK's land-based biodiversity used to come from wildflower meadows. We've had so much loss that much of this once widespread wildlife is now unknown to most of us. Together with Buglife we're going to restore it so that our children rediscover what only our great grandparents can remember.
If you spot this deciduous shrub when you’re out and about, it probably means you’re passing through an ancient habitat. The guelder rose is one of the national symbols of Ukraine, where it is known as “kalyna” and represents fertility, youth and beauty. Guelder rose berries are an important source of food for birds, while hoverflies enjoy this plant’s flowers.
This tree is a popular feature of hedgerows and woodland edges and got its name as it grows close to paths. It produces oval berries which start off red, then turn black, and are a good source of food for birds. When the preserved body of a hunter from 4000 BC was found in the Alps, the arrows in his quiver were made from wayfaring tree twigs.
The wych elm is the only indisputably British native elm species, and gets several mentions in E.M. Forster’s novel “Howard’s End”. This tree needs deep, rich soil in order to flourish, so you’ll often find it growing near a river. In 18th century France, there was a brief craze for wych elm powder, which people believed could cure chest and stomach problems and settle the nerves.
This tree has drooping branches and dense foliage, which makes it difficult for other species of plants, or indeed wildlife, to thrive beneath it. The western hemlock has an important place in ancient American traditions, where it was associated with women and female warriors made headdresses from it. Queen Victoria was so fond of hemlock, she wanted it to be renamed in honour of her beloved husband, Prince Albert.
Its heart-shaped leaves may be small, but this tree is large and sturdy, growing to around 20m tall. Lime wood is used to make piano keys, and its bark can be made into rope. During rationing in World War Two, people made an infusion from crushed lime leaves as a substitute for tea, which was tricky to get hold of.
Yew trees are highly poisonous and ingesting almost any part of the plant can kill, but anti-cancer compounds can be harvested from the leaves and used by scientists in the manufacture of medicine. The Romans believed that yew trees grew in hell. Our ancient ancestors made longbows from yew wood; a very early example of one such weapon found in Dumfries and Galloway is believed to date back around 6,000 years.
This deciduous tree has broad leaves which look a little like those of the maple and start off bright green, before turning red and falling in the autumn. The wild service is becoming increasingly rare, but grows best in the UK’s ancient woodlands near oak or ash trees. You’ll find wild service trees growing on the British Prime Minister’s country estate in Buckinghamshire, which is named after its fruits, “Chequers”.
The whitebeam is quite rare in the wild, but is a popular addition to parks and gardens across the UK. It has creamy-white flowers which appear in late spring, then develop into bright red berries by the autumn. The berries are also known as “chess apples” in some parts of England; they are edible when almost rotten and can be made into jelly.
This pale pink hedgerow staple uses its thorns to clasp onto other plants and grow stronger. According to Roman naturalist Pliny the Elder, the plant is so-called because its root was once believed to cure the bite of a rabid dog. Rose hip oil is a popular ingredient in skincare products, and can also be used to make a syrup that is rich in vitamin C.
This small tree is also known as the “purging blackthorn” because of the laxative effects of its berries, which are mildly poisonous to humans. It grows across England and southern Wales, providing pollen and nectar for bees and other insects. Buckthorn is the sole food plant of the brimstone butterfly.
The sessile oak is Ireland’s national tree and can be found across Europe. Sessile means “without a stalk”, and this tree’s acorns are stalkless, growing directly on twigs. Oaks provide a habitat for many creatures, including red squirrels, badgers, jays, caterpillars and around 250 more species of wildlife.
Pear trees have been grown in orchards and gardens across the UK since the end of the 10th century. This tree can live for a long time - around 250 years - so ancient Chinese people believed that the pear was a symbol of immortality. Pear trees are popular with both humans and insects; birds enjoy snacking on the fruit, while bees sip nectar from the flowers.
This small, thorny tree grows to around 5m tall and can be used in hedgerows. Its fruit - the sloe berry - looks a little like a small plum or damson and can be made into jam, jelly or even sloe gin. The blackthorn had a sinister reputation in mythology, where it was associated with witches.
This striking tree, also known as the “quaking aspen” has shimmering foliage and can grow to 25m tall. The Celts believed that when aspen leaves fluttered in the wind, the tree was communicating with spirits between this world and the next. Since the European Beaver was reintroduced into Scotland after centuries of extinction, aspen has been one of its favourite foods.
Also known as the shore or beach pine, this tree grows well along the coast because it tolerates sea spray and wind well. Here in the UK, it is commonly used for timber in the manufacture of flooring, roofing and to make things like chipboard and paper pulp. Native American communities and European settlers used the wood to make traditional lodges and log cabins, mainly in the Rocky Mountains: hence the name “lodgepole”.
The Serbian spruce is a medium-sized, slim, evergreen conifer which, as the name suggests, is native to small areas of the Balkans. This is a tree that can really withstand adverse conditions and tolerate pollution, making it a popular choice for planting as an ornamental addition to urban areas. Like its cousin, the Norway spruce, the Serbian spruce is often used as a Christmas tree.
This fast-growing evergreen conifer can live for as long as 1000 years and grows to a height of up to 40m. It has red-brown cones, which are the largest of any spruce tree. In 1848, Queen Victoria’s husband Prince Albert introduced the custom of decorating a Norway spruce for Christmas, and it has been a popular festive tree choice in the UK ever since.
Crab apple trees grow throughout Europe and can live for up to a century, reaching a height of around 10m. This tree is traditionally associated with love and marriage, and it is said that if you say the name of your lover while throwing crab apple pips into a fire, then your love is true if the seeds explode! Crab apples can be made into jelly, roasted and added to drinks, or served as an accompaniment to meat.
This bushy, deciduous shrub is native to the UK and Europe. It was a regular feature in Elizabethan gardens and is still very popular with gardeners today, as well as being found in hedgerows and on the edge of woodlands. It has white flowers which bloom in June, before small black berries - which are extremely poisonous to humans but popular with birds - appear in the autumn.
This large, deciduous conifer grows quickly and usually lives for around 250 years, although some European larches are said to be almost 1000 years old! Red squirrels and some birds, including the siskin, enjoy eating larch seeds. According to ancient European folklore, larch had the power to protect against enchantment and ward off evil spirits.
Holly trees can live for up to 300 years, providing a warm and safe habitat for birds to nest in and hedgehogs and other small mammals to hibernate. This tree has long been associated with Christmas, and its spiky green leaves and bright red berries have been used as festive decorations during winter for centuries. Holly was traditionally thought to ward off evil spirits, and Harry Potter fans may remember that the boy wizard’s wand is made from holly!
You’ll find this striking, brightly-coloured flowering plant in hedgerows and forests all over Europe. The spindle is also a very popular addition to parks and gardens, because of its pink and orange fruit and foliage which turns red in the autumn. Its wood is hard and dense, making it the ideal choice for the manufacture of spindles and skewers, and the discovery of spindle wood at Bronze Age burial sites means man has been using it for thousands of years.
Hawthorn is very much associated with the month of May, and the appearance of its bright, white flowers heralds the change from spring to summer. It is prolific in hedgerows, scrub and woodland throughout the UK and Ireland, and a single tree can grow as tall as 10m. In pagan times, hawthorn was a symbol of marriage and fertility, but in the Middle Ages, it was never brought into homes, as people believed it was a harbinger of illness and death.
Dogwood thrives on the edges of damp woodlands and in hedgerows, so Britain’s wet climate really isn’t a problem for this fast-growing shrub. Mature dogwood trees can grow as high as 10m, with small blue-black fruits and little white flowers. It is one of the hardest woods there is, and was used to make crucifixes including - it is said - that of Jesus.
The Atlantic or Atlas Cedar is a large evergreen tree that is native to the Atlas Mountains of Morocco and Algeria, and often grows high above sea level. This tree is conical in shape when it starts to grow, but broadens out in later life as its leaves spread. The essential oil extracted from this cedar’s bark is popular with aromatherapists, who use it to help treat a wide range of ailments. We only plant these trees as specimens for study and to assess future climate resilience, not as a cash crop.
The sweet chestnut tree is native to the Mediterranean and was first brought to Britain by the Romans, who used it in their cooking just as we do today. Sweet chestnuts grow in spiny cupules containing two or three nuts, which can then be removed and roasted. Indeed, anyone who has ever been to a Christmas market will recognise that scrumptious smell! The oldest chestnut tree in the world is over 2,000 years old and can be found five miles from Mount Etna in Sicily.
The hornbeam is extremely tough and keeps its leaves all year round, making it an attractive proposition for birds, insects and other animals. Hornbeam wood is very hard, in fact it is also known as “ironwood” and the Romans recognised its durability, using it to make their chariots. Nowadays, this timber is used for tool handles, coach wheels, parquet flooring and chess pieces!
This small, evergreen tree grows to about 10m at its tallest, making it a very popular ornamental addition to gardens all over Europe. Its flowers are small but have a distinctive smell, and boxwood is hard, smooth and can be highly polished, making it perfect for engravings and musical instruments. Box Hill in the North Downs in Surrey is named after the ancient box woodland on its west-facing chalk slopes.
The downy birch, or white birch, is a deciduous, broad-leafed tree which grows abundantly across the north of Europe and northern Asia. The outer bark can be stripped off without killing the tree, and its twigs and branches are flexible and make good brooms. The Sami people in Scandinavia use downy birch bark when making their traditional bread, while the tree’s sap can be collected in early spring and used to make a syrup or beer.
The silver birch is an elegant, majestic-looking tree which can survive in a range of climates, making it a very popular choice for gardeners. It attracts hundreds of insect species, and woodpeckers like to nest in its rough, tough, silver-white trunk. There is a lot of mythology attached to the silver birch, which is said to symbolise purity, new beginnings and protection. Once upon a time, on Midsummer’s Eve, silver birch boughs were hung across the doors of houses to bring good luck to their residents.
Alder can be found across Europe and thrives in moist ground and damp cool areas, which is why you’ll often see alder trees planted near rivers and ponds. Moth caterpillars love alder leaves and the tree’s roots make an ideal nesting site for otters. For humans, the real value of alder wood is that it’s durable when wet, so is useful for making boats and sluice gates. The story goes that outlaws like Robin Hood would have used the green dye from alder flowers to camouflage their clothing!
This tree grows quickly (about a metre per year in its early years) until it reaches a height of around 25m. It can thrive even when conditions aren’t particularly favourable and is often used to improve the quality of reclaimed land. Not only that, it is often planted as a windbreak. The Italian alder’s leaves are glossy, dark green and heart-shaped.
Sycamores can live for 400 years and are attractive to aphids and their predators. Their seeds are very fertile and float to the ground like little helicopters. Sycamore timber is pale cream in colour and good for carving, which is why it is used for making traditional Welsh lovespoons. Fans of the children’s author Julia Donaldson may know that her popular character Stick Man and his family live in a sycamore tree!
The deciduous Norway maple can be found all over Europe and was introduced to Britain in the 17th century. Caterpillars love its broad, pointy leaves, which are dark green at the start of the year before turning yellow and red in the autumn. This tree grows up to 25m tall, and birds and small mammals eat its seeds, while bees and insects sip from its bright green flowers.
This species is the UK’s only native maple and is often grown as an ornamental tree in large gardens and parks, as well as in woods and hedgerows. Its wood is white, hard and strong, and is popular for making furniture, flooring and musical instruments, especially harps. Field maple flowers are hermaphrodite, meaning each flower contains both male and female reproductive parts.
The grand fir is native to the north-west United States and south-west Canada, and the species was first introduced to Britain in the 19th century. Grand firs are seriously impressive trees; they are hardy and grow quickly, in many different types of soil. They can grow up to about 80m tall and live for around 250 years.
The western red cedar’s strength is celebrated in Native American cultures, and it attracts and shelters many species of birds and insects. Its timber is extremely durable, making it a good source of building materials. If you take a bit of western red cedar foliage and crush it between your fingers, it gives off a sweet smell like pineapple.
The grey willow has oval leaves that sit alongside the grey felt-like twigs and catkins which give it its name. The willow is often associated with sadness, but it wasn’t always so: it was a tree of celebration in the Bible. Aspirin is derived from salicin which is found in all willow species, and our ancestors would chew willow bark to relieve toothache and other pain.
Also known as the common or English oak, this is the undisputed king of the woods, supporting more wildlife species than any other native tree in the UK. “Robur” in this oak’s Latin name means “strength” and “hard timber” because this tree produces incredibly durable wood which can be used to make many things, including furniture and flooring. The oak has been considered sacred by many gods in mythology throughout the ages.
Douglas fir was first introduced to the UK from North America in the 1800s. These fragrant evergreen members of the pine family can live for up to 1,000 years, but are often cut down for use as Christmas trees. Douglas fir timber has lots of commercial uses, including furniture, flooring and decking, for example.
Stunning white cherry blossoms burst forth in April, heralding the arrival of spring and bringing joy to parks and gardens. Mature cherry trees can live for up to 60 years, and provide a great source of food for birds, bees, insects and small animals like badgers and mice. Our ancestors would boil wild cherries and make them into a syrup to treat a range of ailments including coughs and anaemia.
The black walnut was introduced to Europe from the United States in the 17th century and now thrives in sunny, mostly southern, parts of Britain. It is allelopathic, which means its roots release a chemical preventing many other plants from growing nearby, giving the black walnut an advantage. Its nuts are edible and make a popular snack, while medicines and tinctures have been made from various parts of the tree to treat a range of ailments.
The ash is the third most common tree in Britain and thrives in rich, fertile soil where it provides a home for woodpeckers and owls. The ash’s leaves, and indeed its whole crown, can move in the direction of sunlight. You have probably heard of ash dieback disease, a fungus affecting both the leaves and crown. It has already wiped thousands of these elegant trees from our landscape, and experts are trying to stop it. For example, we’ve funded ash planting from genetic stock that is thought to be resilient to Ash dieback disease. We’ve also funded ash where surrounding, diseased trees have been removed (and therefore the pathogen has been removed from the area) and the proportion of ash in the mix is relatively low. If we stop planting ash altogether, any wildlife that relies on it will also die. Although it’s not what we hope for, even if an ash we plant is not able to reach maturity (because it succumbs to dieback), it can still provide a habitat for dependant wildlife. This means that a planted ash can: 1. Give wildlife a fighting chance of finding a healthy ash to live on 2. Give wildlife enough time to wait for a forester to plant a foreign tree species that it can survive on 3. Or (in the longer term) give the wildlife enough time to evolve just enough to be able to survive on a different tree species.
The common hazel is native to Europe and western Asia and forms an important part of England’s hedgerows. We have all heard of hazelnuts, which are rich in unsaturated fats and protein, and an extremely popular ingredient in many of the world’s cuisines. Did you know that hazel trees were once seen as both magical and a symbol of fertility?
If the oak is the king of British trees, then the beech is its queen.A dense canopy of leaves provides a rich habitat for all sorts of insects, its seeds are popular with mice and squirrels, and hole-nesting birds make their homes in beech trunks.Some of the UK’s tallest native trees are beeches, including one that stands at over 44m tall on the National Trust's Devil's Dyke Estate in West Sussex.
Also known as the mountain ash, rowan trees grow well at high altitudes and are commonly found in the Scottish Highlands, as well as on streets and in gardens across the UK.Many birds eat their scarlet berries in the autumn, then disperse the seeds.Rowan used to be planted next to homes to ward off the threat of witches, as red was once believed to guard against evil.
The UK’s only truly native pine is Scotland’s national tree and can be found in abundance in the Highlands.The Caledonian Pine Forest is home to all sorts of wonderful species including the pine marten, red squirrel and rare Scottish wildcat. Scots pine has strong timber which is used for making fences, telegraph poles and other construction materials, and the bark can be tapped for resin to make turpentine.