Yew liqueur, you!

So, we all know (or should know) that every part of the Yew tree is highly toxic to humans. When I say highly toxic, what I mean is that a very small amount can kill you. All parts contain taxin, a complex of alkaloids which are rapidly absorbed.

If you are poisoned by it, sometimes there are no symptoms, followed by death within a few hours. Where there are symptoms, they include trembling, staggering, coldness, weak pulse and collapse.

So what’s the good news?

Now that I’ve scared the living daylights out of you, there is one part that is not toxic. See those pretty little red berries, the red flesh is not toxic, and is also quite nice and sweet tasting; However, the hard, dark-coloured seeds inside, have probably the highest concentration of toxins of the whole tree. It is said that if unbroken, the seeds will pass through you without being digested and without causing harm.

I’m not sure it’s worth the risk, personally. However, I have been known to pick a few and spit the seeds out. The flesh is really quite nice (although I have heard some people compare the texture to snot – but I couldn’t possibly comment).

I’m assuming that it’s for for safety’s sake that there are no recipes for yew berry flesh, or even many instructions to tell you the safe way of eating them. After all, I could easily imagine someone seeing other people eating them and assuming that they’re completely safe, followed shortly afterwards by a trip to the hospital, or the morgue!

Time to make some yew liqueurs

That said, I decided that I would have a play with the flavours and some spirits to see if anything gave good results. Maybe some kind of yew liqueur?

The first step is to separate the flesh from the poisonous seeds. I tried to freeze them first to make it easier, but they didn’t freeze very well, so it was a quite disgusting manual job. The squeezed flesh went quite sticky.

So finally, I split the berry flesh into three portions and put them into some clean, sterilized Kilner-type jars. Over each, I then poured filtered white rum, filtered gin, and filtered vodka. Then I left them to sit and infuse (hopefully), giving them a helpful little shake each time I passed by.

The results…

So, after infusing for 2 weeks now, so it was time for a little try. At this point, the spirits had started to sweeten slightly, but not much change to colour or flavour.

After 4 weeks, things had moved on somewhat, so I strained and bottled the infusions.

White rum, vodka and gin yew infusions

Now you can see that not only have they taken on slightly different colours across the different spirits, but also I’ve ended up with slightly different amounts of end product, despite the fact that they started with the same volume of berries and spirits.

The judgement

First of all, they are all quite nice. The berries have imparted a slight sweetness, some of their stickiness has come through and made the spirits thicker and smoother, and there’s a very subtle citrus berry flavour.

However, one stands out above the rest. The Gin infusion seems to have worked very well. It’s nice to drink on its own, and if we hadn’t drunk it all it would probably go quite well in a cocktail. Maybe I’ll make it again this year, but try to save some for cocktail experiments, or make some more!

London Plane Tree (Platanus × acerifolia)

Whilst the London Plane tree is of no use when foraging for food and drink; And as far as I’m aware, not especially useful for bushcraft; given that it accounts for probably half of the large trees in London, I think it’s worth being able to identify, if only for the purpose of elimination. Environmentally speaking, they are very useful as they grow very tall and have a natural ability to absorb pollution from the air (no wonder they’re planted so much in London!)

I was in Island Gardens when I found myself surrounded by them. Apparently Berkeley Square is also a good place to see them.

London Plane trees and Island Gardens

London Plane Identification

Luckily, it is one that is pretty easy to identify, even in winter. The bark is the thing that stands out the most, being a sort of urban camouflage. It is a smooth, but flaky bark, with the flaky scales often being coloured mottled green, brown, olive and grey. When the tree gets older, the lower parts of the trunk can appear more fissured/grooved, but the usual pattern will continue higher up.

London Plane Tree Mottled Bark
Older London Plane Tree Bark

As well as the bark, the fruit often remain on the tree through to spring, and they are small, spiky balls of 2 to 3 cm diameter.

London Plane fruit in winter

Identifying Trees in Winter

Please note: This article was originally posted on www.totallywilduk.co.uk

Identifying trees in Winter is hard. It isn’t too bad in Spring, Summer and Autumn; But during the winter, when there are no leaves, flowers or fruits on show, it’s pretty awful.

Winter Trees

Why trees? What has that got to do with foraging?

The obvious reason is that some have edible parts. The fruit of Sweet Chestnut, Acorns (after processing), and Apples for example. But there’s a secondary reason too. Trees can point toward other edible resources. For example, Cattails (or Greater Reed Mace) grow in water and are available all year round as a food source. Willow and Alder trees also like to grow near water. So, if you can spot weeping willow and/or alder trees in winter, there may be Cattails nearby too.

Willow and Reedmace

So what about when there are no leaves, flowers or fruit to help me?

Honestly, part of me doesn’t really care that much (I know, you’re horrified, right?) But seriously, unless I’m in a survival situation, they’re no use to me in the Winter, and I can always come back later and identify them when it’s easier. That said, maybe you’re out and about and you want to know whether it’s worth coming back in the productive seasons. So, here are a few things that can help.

Apps and Books to use

I have the “British Trees” app from the Woodland Trust, and that’s quite good. I also use the Collins Gem “Trees” book; Mostly because it’s small and easy to carry around. There are many other tree reference books that you could refer to at home when returning with lots of pictures.

Parts of a tree that can help in identification

That’ll be all the parts you can see, and sometimes, where the tree is. Including: bark, general shape/outline, twigs, leaf buds (which are present throughout Autumn and Winter, not just in Spring), any remaining fruit and/or seeds/cones, any remaining leaves/needles, and any remaining flowers (some catkins remain through the winter). Also, don’t forget to look down; There could be leaf litter and other evidence on the floor around the tree.

Hazelnut Litter

Leaves or not?

Probably the most obvious place to start would be whether it has leaves through the winter or not. If it does, then you have leaf shapes to look at too, such as the needle-like leaves of conifers, or the spiky, shiny leaves of holly for example.

Holly Leaves

Location

The location of a tree can be helpful in identification. As I mentioned before, certain trees like to be in wet, marshy ground; Or Scots pine, for example tends to be found in poor soil, rocky areas, and generally where other trees don’t like to grow.

Alder tree with its “feet” in the river

Shape

The shape of a tree from a distance can also give you a starting point. If your tree is in the middle of a forest, this isn’t so easy, but if you can see the whole thing you may be able to begin with trees that grow tall and thin, or short and wide, warped and twisted, etc.

White Poplar

Bark

The bark of a tree is there year-round and can be a key identifier. Birches with their white, peel-able bark, cherries and plums with their shiny, red-ish bark with horizontal lenticels, poplar with their creepy, eye-like markings, and so on.

Cherry Bark

Twigs

Twigs can be hairy or hairless, slightly different colours, with or without glands, fine and delicate or more substantial, and the arrangement of buds on the twigs can be useful too.

Birch twig

Leaf buds

Contrary to popular belief, the leaf buds on trees are generally there throughout winter and are quite different between tree species. For example, Beech buds are long (up to 2 cm), slender, very pointed, red-ish brown, with obvious scales; Oak are shorter, egg-shaped, orange brown, and form in clusters at the shoot tips.

Beech Buds

Other features

Some trees have other features which you can look out for too. For example, common alder cones tend to remain on the tree into the next season; Common hawthorn has short, sharp thorns throughout; blackthorn has long, vicious-looking thorns throughout and so on.

Blackthorn Spines

Finally

I hope you’ve found this helpful. It’s not meant to be a guide to identification, just a few pointers to help you get started. Happy tree hunting!