If You Go Down To The Woods Today - Issue 1 Volume 6

This week we are going to have a look at the lives of two of our woodland champions.  One, people flock from all over the country to see in Spring and the other, is well, almost forgotten.

One is a purple superstar that has caught the imagination of artists, poets and intellectuals alike.  The other was so important in its role pre plastic and mass importation it was seen as a very special woodland spirit indeed.

May I introduce the Bluebell and Field Maple.

A Superstar and Faded Fame

The Bluebell – ( Endymion non-scriptus)

Nothing calms and excites quite so much as a carpet of bluebells being shone upon with the iridescent light of the Springtime woodland canopy. 

The air is alive with the buzz of the early pollinators and the breeze is still cool on your cheek.  As the wind moves the leafy canopy, so the shadows move below.  This is almost giddying and it’s having the same effect on the brain as if we were watching the dancing flames of a Winter fire. 

These pictures of a bluebell wood were taken over ten years ago and they still make me smile; as much to do with the flowers as the memory of our visit. 

The woods in the photos are open and mostly beech.  Bluebells will happily hangout with any number of understory trees or shrubs but one of its favourites is the field maple, but more on that beautiful tree in a moment. 

We have used the bulbs of bluebells as a very rudimentary glue to fletch arrows.  It was recorded back in 1568 that young lads would scrape the bulb against the arrow shaft.  This would leave a slime to which the feathers could be glued. 

Badgers love to eat them.  If you hear the busy sound of crunching, much like that of a small pickled onion, off in the woods at this time of year it’s probably “Brock” enjoying a tasty Spring snack.  Don’t try to eat them yourself though, you’ll be very sick.  The same can be said for our dogs and horses. 

Maybe because of this slightly dangerous aspect to the bluebell’s character it was thought to be an unlucky flower to bring into the home. Best to leave it in the springtime sun, dancing with the canopy’s shadows.

Field Maple – (Acer campestre)

Campestre means to grow in fields. This is definitely where our only native Acer likes to put down its roots. You’ll see it more in hedges and field borders than have them growing in their hundreds in the middle of the wood. Or at least that’s what the books will have you believe. Mother Nature has been surprising me over the last few weeks. As I have been creating a larger and larger cutting area within the coupe, field maple trees have been showing themselves.  Tall, slender and with the signs of coppicing from long ago they look nothing like their squat and robust looking relatives. 

We have used the timber for centuries in the art of turning. Every sway the tree has ever taken seems to have been captured in the timber. It is so easy to work I definitely rate it as one of the best British timbers to use. In the picture below you can see a freshly oiled field maple bowl. The lines are called Tiger stripes or quilting. They shimmer in the light and are quite simply beautiful. For this reason, many violins have their backs and sides made from field maple. The diary industry used it to skim cream as it gives off no taste whatsoever. 

The slow decline of its use comes down to one thing, time.  It takes a long time for the timber to grow to a maturity.  The non-native sycamore however is quick to grow and is so efficient at self-seeding it is considered a weed.

The Norse used to turn their drinking vessels from field maple.  The bottoms of the mugs would have a pointed base so the user couldn’t put their drinks down.  Ingenious or a problem?  I’ll let you decide that. 

There was widespread tradition that if a newborn child was passed through a split field maple, they would have a long and healthy life.  Also, the sap was drunk as a sugary treat although birch was easier to collect.

So, The Next Time You Are Out And About…

There you have it.  A superstar and a faded celebrity that was once found in every household.  When you see your first bluebell, really be mindful on how you feel.  Why has it made you feel like that? 

Can you find a field maple close to your house?  I’ve given you its scientific name, look it up and see what you think/

Until next time.