British Native Woods and their uses in history


Burning: useful as charcoal, ingredient of gunpowder. Wood has poor heating power.

Uses: As a dyestuff, bark for red, pinky fawn from the catkins, yellow from the young shoots. For tanning.

It is soft and easily carved having been used commonly for carving, turning and wooden shoes. It is THE wood to use for Dark Age period bowls.

Dry it is not very strong or durable , but under water is a different matter hence its use in boat building and pumps.

A specific use is in glass moulds as the soft carbon layer of Alder transfers little grain pattern to the hot glass.

Finds: a Bronze age tub in the Fens, ard beam c80BC at Lochmaben.

Apple-Malus sylvestric-Crab or Wild Apple

Burning: Burns slowly and steadily, a good flame with little heat, give a pleasant smell, nice white ash. Can be used for smoking fish to give a distinctive taste.(East Anglia)

Uses: The wood is in too small pieces for many uses outside carving. The fruit is used mainly after fermentation or as jellies etc due to the bitter taste. Pips uses for making impressions in prehistoric pottery.

Finds: Crab apples in prehistoric storage pits, may have been dried for winter food. Pot sherds on neolithic site of Windmill hill.

Ash: Fraxinus excelsior

Burning: Excellent fuel, burning well, even when green, smooth and quiet to burn, with a clear flame, giving great heat. An old country saying goes ''Ash that's green is fire for a Queen' In East Anglia Ash wood shavings were used for smoking kippers.

Uses: It strong straight grain , with it remarkable elasticity makes it the choice for arrow shafts, spear shafts, axe handles, oars and barrel hoops. It is useful for general carpentry and is probably the third most important timber after oak and beech. The wood for Medieval bowls. It does rot easily in contact with the ground , however.

Finds: Cross battens in the Ferriby Boat , from the middle bronze age, and arrow shaft.

Beech Fagus sylvatica European beech

Burning: Good for heat wet or dry, but can shoot out embers, little smoke.

Uses: Edible nuts, used as a source of oil, which is edible and non drying. Has been used for soap and lighting and is a cooking oil in France. Distillation of the wood gives tar, creosote and methyl alcohol. Leaves have been used to stuff mattresses as their slight toxicity discourages pests.

The wood has a strong even grain. It must however be well seasoned for strength. Difficult to work, but has been used extensively for turning, carving and furniture. Durable underwater and used for small dams and shipbuilding. The bowl making wood for 1500-1700

Finds: Somerset Levels Trackways, stone axe handles, spear shafts.

Birch: Betula pendula, silver birch, white birch

Burning: Easy to light, but quick burning. Gives great heat with a characteristic smell. If uses constantly a gum deposit will build up in the chimney which can be flammable. Charcoal is excellent, and was widely used for iron smelting. Smoke used in Scotland for smoking herrings. The high proportion of pitch in the bark, make rolled pieces a useful fire lighting tool.

Uses: Wine from birch sap, The bark can be sewn and makes good containers. It can also be used in tanning and as insulation. It has been used in Europe and Asia for roofing shingles. The extracted pitch is a useful glue. It has also been used as a bast fibre. The timber rots quickly in water, so is of use for furniture, doors indoors. Used for bowls.

Finds: Containers, arrow shafts.

Box: Buxus sempervirens


Uses: Ornamental, very close grained and dense, but only available in small pieces, so used for small wheels, pins, printing blocks, screws, shuttles, buttons, rulers, musical instruments rather than large pieces

Finds: Roman boxwood comb, Roman hedge clippings, lining of coffins.


Prunus padus bird cherry Prunus avium, wild cherry, gean, mazzard Prunus cerasus sour cherry, dwarf cherry, Prunus spinosa sloe, blackthorn

Burning: Slow to start , but once going a good heat source with a pleasant smell.

Uses: Edible varieties also in drinks, jellies, stones give a semi drying oil. Prized for Cabinet making and walking stick, especially Irish shillelaghs. Possibly dye uses, from the fruit.

Finds: Wheelbarrow load of sloe stones from Glastonbury Lake village.

Elder: Sambucus nigra, European elder

Burning: When dry burns well, with a acrid smoke, little heat.

Uses: Edible berries and flowers, for food, drinks . A rich source of Vitamin C . Dye , black from bark, purple/pinks from berries. Glue from leaves, for fixing feather flight etc.cogs in mills from the wood, pegs and skewers. The pith can be removed to give a hollow pipe for musical whistles etc.

Finds: Elderberries in prehistoric pits.

Elm: Ulmus glbra,

Ulmus campestre, wych elm, scots elm, ulmus procera English elm

Burning: Needs to be dried for 2 years to be of any use, even then it smokes. If damp need a lot of heat to get going, if rotten it is of no use.

Uses: Leaves for animal fodder. Wych elm bark for bark bread for human bulk food. The wood is hard and resistant to splitting. It will not rot as long as it is either wet or dry , unchanging. Butchers blocks, felloes of wheels, shipbuilding, coffins, drains, bridges.

Finds: Medieval bridges.


Crataegus monogyna, whitethorn, quickthorn, may Crataegus oxycanthoides, English Hawthorn, midland hawthorn, woodland hawthorn.


Uses: Leaves of the quickthorn are edible, haws for food, young flowers used to be eaten by rural children as bread and butter, hedging. Wood for turning, walking stick and wagon parts.



Corylus avellana, cobnut, nuttery, European Hazel

Burning: Good fire when old.

Uses: Nuts are edible and a source of oil, for food, lubrication, paints, perfumes and soaps. Leaves edible to humans and sheep, but cattle no keen. Coppiced for sheep hurdles, fencing basketry.

Finds: Somerset levels trackways, arrow shafts, spears, a bow. Scabbard in Scotland of the bronze age was leather stiffened with a lath of Hazel. Wicker lined pits.


Ilex aquifolium, English holly, hulver

Burning: Fast burning, bright flame but little heat.

Uses: Carving and turning, handles

Finds: Pegs of the Sweet Track and a hooked implement there.

Hornbeam: Carpinus betulus, European Hornbeam

Burning: Good burner, with high heat output. Good charcoal fuel

Uses: Not large trees, but hard, useful for mallet heads, axels, yokes, spokes, handles and cogs.

Finds: Wheel spokes in Denmark

Juniper Juniperus communis

Burning: Foliage as kindling

Uses: Berries to flavour drinks. Bark for cordage in Lapland, roots for baskets, brown dye from the berries. Handles of daggers and spoons.



Tilia cordata, small leafed lime Tilia platyphyllos, large leafed lime.

Burning: Hard to light, poor flame, smolders.

Uses: Young leaves edible, deer especially like them. Flowers are loved by bees for honey. Bast fibres, very fine and sought after. But this destroys the tree. Wood loved by carvers.

Finds: Medieval halters, rope and fishing tackle, from the bast.


Acer campestre, field maple, hedhe maple, Acer pseudoplatanus, sycamore, plane, scotch or great maple.(late introduction post medieval)

Burning: Burns splendidly , Sycamore less well

Uses: Beer from the sap, textile and laundry rollers. Sycamore was used widely in dairies.

Finds: Somerset Levels, prehistoric yoke of Field maple.

Mountain ash:

Sorbus aucuparia, European mountain ash, rowan, quicken Sorbus aria, whitebeam


Uses: Berries for flavouring and a rich source of vitamin C. Wood as small parts in tools, spinning wheels and wagons.



Quercus petraea, sessile oak, durmast Quercus robur English oak, pedunculate oak

Burning: Dry old oak good heat producing qualities but not very cheery. Sparse flame and acrid smoke, burns slowly and steadily. Oak charcoal for Iron smelting.

Uses: Roasted acorns are edible and acorns are a good pig fodder. I East Anglia, used for smoking kippers and oak billets for smoking bloaters. Rich in tannic acid and the bark used for tanning. Leaf galls important source of tannin. All kinds of carpentry uses, furniture, ships, lock gates, docks. The most common wood archeologically. Used for tree ring dating.

Finds: Dug out boats, coffins, waterfronts.

Pear pyrus communis

Burning: Excellent with attractive scen

Uses: Leaves for a yellow dye, fruit for jellies etc, cultivated fruit is edible. Wood for carving, rulers, drawing instruments, turnery and knife handles. Blocks for glass moulds.


Pine: Pinus sylvestris

Burning: Burns hotly and rapidly, but inclined to spit. Best used on big fireplaces.

Uses: Distilled for pitch and tar, also turpentine. The leaves give oil and the cones a yellow dye. Pine timber is not very strong, but it is durable and used for general carpentry and planking.

Finds: Bronze age longbow, arrow shafts


populus nigra, black poplar, Populus tremula, aspen

Burning: Least flammable wood, difficult to burn, bitter smoke, hardly ant heat.

Uses: Matchstick, Camembert cheese boxes, Dutch clogs


Sweet Chestnut:

Castanea sativa, Spanish chestnut (not native, possibly Roman introduction)

Burning: Fair heating power, small flame with shooting embers.

Uses: Chestnuts edible raw, better roasted, they can also be boiled, ground to flour, used in soup, fried in oil or made into confectionary. Romans used the flour and fed the nuts to pigs. The bark can be used to tan making the leather waterproof. The timber splits well and is resilient to rotting , so makes good fencing.



Salix alba, white willow, Salix viminalis, osier Salix Caprea, sallow, goat willow, Salix fragilis, crack willow

Burning: Slow burning, sparks and gives little heat. Excellent charcoal

Uses: Young stems for Basketry, wickerwork, fencing, hurdles. Wood for milking pails. Infusion of bark for headaches and rheumatism. Deep red dye from roots and strong fibres from the bast. Wood for cricket bats and artificial legs.


Yew: Taxus baccata

Burning: Burns slowly with a slight scent, fierce heat.

Uses: All parts are poisonous to animals and humans. High usage as bows, also decorative turnery and carving.

Finds: Prehistoric and medieval bows, Clacton spear point (Hoxnian Interglacial)