Although it is quite late in the season to be foraging for sweet chestnuts (Castanea sativa), there were still a good number of edible nuts to be found during the first week of November. Ecclesall Woods is my favourite location for harvesting these delicious nuts. There are many large sweet chestnut trees in the woods, many of which were planted in the 1850s.
Sweet chestnuts are actually a Southern European species that were introduced into the woods as a fast growing alternative to native oak, with which it shares a high tannin content. This makes it a durable timber suitable for uses where a degree of water-resistance is required.
Luckily for us, many of these trees are now large specimens that produce an abundance of delicious nuts. Sadly some sweet chestnuts in Ecclesall Woods have been affected by Phytophthora aka ink disease on account of the dark spot-like stains that are seen on some trees, notably on beech. It is harder to see the early stages on the rough-barked chestnuts.
Should you go looking for chestnuts, remember to leave some for the wildlife. When gathering these I saw not one but two wood mice lurking in nearby brambles – it is not just the squirrels who like a nibble. Only take the big and firm nuts. If they are soft they are past their best; too small and they are a pain to shell.
Last Wednesday met up with Green City Heritage to make a short film for this year’s Urban Tree Festival. In it we explore the urban woodland within Sheffield General Cemetery, observing appropriate physical distancing guidelines by using a selfie-stick! We are so fortunate to have this fine mature woodland, with many an interesting species, within walking distance of the city centre.
Despite the urban setting the cemetery is a biodiversity hotspot and is popular with both wildlife and people alike. This is why I have chosen to add this location to my list of places for leading guided walks, which I hope to resume later this year.
Join me for another virtual walk around Ecclesall Woods in Sheffield, South Yorkshire. In mid-April most trees have now come into leaf and there are wildflowers in every direction. Learn how to identify: beech (Fagus sylvatica); English bluebell (Hyacinthoides non-scripta); greater stitchwort (Stellaria holostea); hornbeam (Carpinus betulus); sweet chestnut (Castanea sativa) and wood sorrel (Oxalis acetosella).
Yesterday I was fortunate enough to have a tour of the Meersbrook Park Walled Garden, Sheffield, in the company of Kaktus, a volunteer and fellow tree enthusiast. This visit was in preparation for a walk that I will be leading here next year. Along with the park itself, the walled garden makes a wonderful place for a tree walk on account of the species variety, many of which are seldom seen in this part of the world.
Upon entering the walled garden from the park the first highlight is the ghostly Himalayan birch (Betula utilis), the white bark of which is especially stunning when all the leaves have fallen. Immediately to the right is a tunnel formed from flexible white willow (Salix alba) that is identifiable, even without its leaves, by the yellow stems of younger growth. This tree’s common name comes from the white underside of the leaves, just to clear up any possible confusion.
One of the trees caught me out. It was an oak-leaved cultivar of hornbeam (Carpinus betulus ‘Quercifolia’), which I have never encountered before. A few minutes were spent scratching my head: the leaves were saying ‘oak’ but the bark was something else altogether and I will admit to being thrown off the scent. Only when Kaktus confirmed it was a hornbeam did all the bits of the puzzle fall into place. Even when young the bark has the characteristic striated appearance that is best evoked by the North American name ‘musclewood’.
One of the more exotic specimens found here is the foxglove tree (Paulowniatomentosa) and, despite hailing from Central and Western China, it grows surprisingly well in Northern Britain providing it gets enough shelter from the wind. I will be back in May to check out the spectacular lilac-coloured flowers. For now it can be recognised by the unusual, pointed, seed pods, each apparently containing 200 seeds, which contributes to this beautiful tree being regarded as an invasive weed in North America.
There are many trees of note elsewhere in the park, some of which I have mapped already, however it is a huge space and I will have to return to complete the rest in the New Year. On my way back to Meersbrook Park Road I spotted a yellow-berried holly, right next to this entrance, which was truly resplendent in the slanting winter sunlight. The birds tend to favour red berries first and so the yellow berries will likely remain throughout winter.