In the turbulent years of the eighteenth century, oak was a vital ship building material. A ship like the Victory would involve the felling of about eighty acres of oak forest. Today, it is still an important structural wood where traditional appearance or strength and durability are required. It is also an important furniture wood and a special use is for the staves of whiskey and sherry casks.
Oak was the Norse tree of thunder, sacred to the god Thor and gave protection to those sheltering under its boughs. If struck by lightning, pieces of the shattered wood were kept as protective amulets.
Before the catastrophe of Dutch Elm Disease the elm imparted a certain evocative English character to the rural landscape. In 1975 several countries reported the death of 98 per cent of all Smooth-leaved elms. Wych elm is also affected by the disease but is still holding its own in some places.
Elm is used for structural purposes where the wood is permanently wet, in fishing boats and barges, for dock work and piling - the Rialto in Venice is said to stand on elm piles. It is the traditional wood for weather boards and the seats of Windsor chairs.
Common ash is one of the principal trees of European lowland forests. Wildwoods are to be found mainly on the limestone of the Cotswolds, Derbyshire and Yorkshire. The ash is so adaptable, however, that it is also found in many other situations. Because of its graceful habit and high quality wood it was often grown outside the forest and the stands of ash are sometimes the only evidence of ancient human settlement.
The leaves have been used as an infusion in folk medicine for their diuretic and laxative properties and in the treatment of kidney diseases and rheumatism. The bark was formally used as a substitute for quinine to reduce fever.
The wood is noted for its resilience and flexibility and was used to make car bodies as well as the first skis. It is also used for cricket stumps, baseball bats and axe handles.
Sycamore has the reputation of an aggressive coloniser and is disliked for its sticky drippings of honeydew but it is a shapely and colourful tree which enhances many a bleak north country farm, and grows on the exposed north western seaboard where few other trees can survive.
The wood is normally straight grained but European sycamore occasionally has a wavy grain giving a figure which is much sought after. This rippled, or "fiddleback" sycamore is the traditional wood for violins, often coming from carefully tended trees of between 50 and 100 years old, in central Europe.
Sycamore is also the wood preferred for shoe lasts, for parts of piano actions, and because of its exceptional resistance to abrasion, for flooring in gymnasia, bowling alleys and dance halls.
Birch is a northern hemisphere tree, particularly important in Canada (especially yellow birch B. alleghaniensis) and Europe ( B. pendula and B. pubescens). Birch rotary peels well and provides high grade logs for the important Finnish and Russian plywood industries.
Birch is more familiar as plywood than as solid timber; because of its strength properties it makes excellent structural plywood. The British Mosquito aircraft of World War 11 was built of birch ply. It is also said to make an excellent divining wood.
The "mother of the forest" is the beech. The fresh green foliage in spring and the golden bronze of autumn make the beech woods of England a beautiful sight. The root system is very shallow for such a heavy tree which combined with a dense canopy is the reason they suffered so disastrously during the storms of 1987.
"Chair bodgers" working from temporary workshops set up in beech woods, particularly in Buckinghamshire, turned, using simple lathes, the back supports and legs of Windsor chairs which developed around the seventeenth century.
Beech is used for the "wrest-plank" in pianos which must bear the strain of 225 or more strings each under a tension of more than 150lb . More commonly, there can hardly be a kitchen in the country without a wooden spoon - of beech.
Walnut occurs in the warmer temperate regions of the northern hemisphere. Two timbers are of particular importance, European walnut, J. regia, first planted in Britain by the Romans who called it "the nut of Jove", worthy of their highest god, and American black walnut, J. nigra, of the United States and Canada.
Walnut is one of the world's outstanding decorative woods, long used for cabinetwork and particularly associated with the Queen Anne period. Today, walnut is used in furniture and for decorative panelling mainly as a veneer; it is used in the solid for fine cabinetwork and is the preferred and much sought after timber for the butts of guns.
Crinkled surfaces of walnuts look like wizened brains so doctors once prescribed them for "passions of the brain". If you couldn't afford a doctor, hanging one around your neck was believed to be a charm against epilepsy.
Yew is a beautiful wood, red when first cut but turning brown on prolonged exposure. It is one of the heaviest of softwoods, noted for its resilience and almost as hard as oak.
Perhaps the most famous use of yew was for archers' bows, especially the English longbow of the Middle Ages. It is also the traditional wood for the bent parts of Windsor chairs.
Yew trees may symbolize both life and death. Once sacred to Hecate, queen of the underworld, they are found in almost every English graveyard, their evergreen quality representing the triumph of everlasting life.
A hundred years ago half the population in parts of south China was working in the booming silk industry. The land was covered with mulberry trees producing leaves to feed the silkworms. Mulberry is also a widely used traditional folk remedy, used for " asthma, bronchitis, bugbite, cold, constipation, cough, through to snakebite, sore throat, tumors, vertigo, and wounds"...Just about anything really!
Mulberry twigs are used for making baskets, the sticks as beanpoles, and sporting goods (it's springy, like ash). In Japan, the traditional "chashaku" green tea scoop used in semi-formal tea ceremonies is made of mulberry wood. If it's not mulberry then it's only an informal one.
Mulberry bark is also used for paper in Europe, and in Polynesia it is used to make a fabric called Tapa cloth - an ancient craft that is now helping to save rainforests in the region.
This tree is not true acacia but a member of the pea family! (leguminosae). Also known as false acacia, Robina or locust tree, it is probably the most successful of all north American trees outside their homeland. First introduced into this country in 1638 it was planted by the thousand in the early 1800s in preference to oak.
The wood is used for boat planking, gates, stakes, casks, propellers and bearings.
This beautiful small tree is a rarity although it is native to a large area of England and the Welsh borders. It is also known as a chequers tree and it is possible that the Prime Minister’s residence is so called because of these trees in its grounds.
‘Wild service’ is a botanist’s name, based on a slight resemblance to the True service tree, Sorbus domestica which grows in France and bears edible berries. The word “Service” comes from cerevisia, a Roman alcoholic drink made by fermenting grain and the Sorbus berries. The berries were also commonly used to cure colic and the tree’s latin name torminalis means “good for colic”.
The wood does not seem to have a particularly widespread use despite its lovely fine grain and rich colouring. However there are some records of it being used by joiners and engravers for a wide variety of items and the wood is similar in characteristics to sycamore.