Uses for Oak, Ash, Beech, Elm and Birch

Since time immemorial, our woodlands and forests have been a source of sustenance and raw materials for our survival.

Trees such as oak, beech and ash were prized not only for the wood they provided but because of their fruit for food, their bark, roots and leaves for medicine and for a variety of other uses. 

In some cases these trees were a spiritual emblem or link to the natural word for many civilisations and cultures.

It goes without saying that trees are important to human existence and some of the species mentioned here have such a storied and rich past.

Trees already recycle carbon dioxide and give us oxygen, and it turns out there is much more we can get from our forests and woodlands.


Uses for Oak

Considered one of the British Isles’ most beloved trees and sometimes referred to as the King of English trees, the majestic oak is a popular choice for woodworkers, herbalists and foragers.

Read More: A Guide to the Wildflowers of our Ancient Woodlands

It’s uses range from being made into furniture and flooring to medicinal purposes and as a source of food.

Ancient oak
This ancient oak is in a former forest – hunting forest

The main characteristics of the oak wood are that it has a really close grain which means that it provides timber that is usually straight, strong and hardy.

Oak is a hardwood so it has been used for thousands in the construction of dwellings, furniture, and other projects that require robustness and structural integrity.

Found in Europe and parts of Asia, there are over five hundred different types of oak tree species.

In addition to being highly water resistant, oak wood is also more averse to warping in the sun than other types of planks.

Incredible Building Material

Read More: The Impact of the Loss of Our Ancient Woodlands

Another advantage that oak has in this regard is that is highly resistant to fungal or insect infestations due to its high tannin content.

In modern housebuilding, oak is a popular choice for flooring because of its high wear and tear threshold.

For hundreds of years people have also relied on oak trees for food and medicine. The tree is very rich in nutrients such as proteins, B vitamins, oils, and other minerals.

oak framed saxon long house
A superior building material for it’s strength and durability

As a result, since ancient times people have gathered the oak’s fruit and acorns for a variety of purposes including grinding them into flour, or eating them roasted, boiled, or dried for future use.

Acorns also produce milk when ground or squeezed while its leaves were once used to make wine.

Oak is also renowned for its medicinal properties. Traditionally all parts of the tree have been used as herbal medicinal remedies to treat ailments ranging from skin issues to digestive complaints.

Read More: Forest Law Was Hated by the Medieval Commoner

The bark in particular is a common ingredient in medicines used as anti-inflammatory, antiseptic or for pain relief. Finally, another popular use for oak in ancient times was its prominent role in warfare as its wood was used to make bows, clubs, and wheels.

Uses for Ash

As a hardwood like oak above, the ash tree is another woodland inhabitant that is popular in construction for its hardwearing properties and resistance to wear and tear.

Its robustness and resistance to shock coupled with its beautiful looking finish also means that ash wood has long been a popular choice for making the handles of tools such as hammers, spades, and axes.

ash gate hurdles
Ash gate hurdles penning in cattle at market.

In more modern times those same properties have made ash wood the go-to for use in making sporting equipment such as baseball bats, oars, and hockey sticks.

Native to Europe and parts of Africa and Asia, the ash tree can reach heights of over thirty meters when fully grown.

The trees often grow together thus forming a canopy that still allows sunlight to reach ground and benefits woodland habitats.

Interestingly, this may be because its male and female flowers grow on different trees, although you may also find both female and male flowers on different branches of the same tree.

Harder Than Oak

Read More: Ancient Woodland Indicators

While not known to be edible for humans, the fruit of the ash tree is consumed by a variety of birds and mammals that help to spread the tree’s seeds in turn.

However, wood from ash trees is sometimes used to make food containers due to its neutral smell or ‘taste’.  Ash burns steadily and provides good heat and so would have been a common choice for firewood as well.

 As a building material, ash wood is not suitable for outdoor use and is much more preferred for indoor purposes instead. This makes it a prized wood for making furniture, flooring and other aesthetic adornments such as staircases and tables.

Gainsborough Old Hall in Gainsborough,
Gainsborough Old Hall in Gainsborough, Lincolnshire is over five hundred years old and one of the best preserved medieval manor houses and kitchen in England. Now that’s what you call a kitchen – bet that ate a lot of firewood!

Harder than oak, and with a straight grain, ash timber is used to make more permanent items such as furniture, flooring, cabinets, and doors.

In times past, the ash was used by the Druids to make wands due to its well-known quality of having a straight grain. Ancient civilisations also believed it to have spiritual and medicinal properties.

Read More: A Guide to the Wildflowers of our Ancient Woodlands

However, historically the ash tree has also served a more deadly purpose and that is in the making of spears.

This was because despite its notable density and strength ash wood is remarkably light compared to similar types of tree.


Another hardwood tree common to Europe and the UK is beech.

The straight grained and hard timber it produces is used in a variety of purposes including in the making of furniture, cooking utensils, and as fuel.

Traditionally, beech would have been a good option for firewood and its leaves were believed to hold medicinal properties and so were boiled and used as an anti-inflammatory.

pollarded beech tree
Huge pollarded beech tree

If the oak is the king of the forest, then the beech was the queen. In ancient times, Celtic mythology revered the beech tree and therefore saw it as representing femininity and thus the queen of the forest.

Read More: What is Heathland?

In addition, when it came to finding the best forked branch with which to find water, one from the beech tree was believed to be the best option.

In more recent history, beech was also used to smoke fish such as herring, while its nuts can be fed to livestock.

Beechnuts in autumn
Beechnuts in autumn

Because of its straight grain and usually beautiful, uniform texture, beech is also commonly used to make cooking utensils such as wooden spoons and bowls.

In woodworking, beech wood is prized for use in making decorative items and its hardness and pliability make it a common choice in the manufacture of cabinets, flooring, as well as furniture used by crafters.

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Beech is also used to make plywood, and like ash wood above, the handles of tools and sports equipment.

Other more interesting uses of beech include being used in the making of musical instruments such as pianos, and boatbuilding.


One type of tree that is lesser known but just as versatile and history-laden is the elm tree.

Thought to have been brought to these shores by our ancestors in the Bronze Age, Elm trees can grow up to thirty meters and live for over a century.

With a rough, greyish brown bark, Elm trees produce wood that is durable and strong due to its tight grain.

Elm was often used as wheel hubs for carts and carriages because of its grain was resistant to splitting.
Elm was often used as wheel hubs for carts and carriages because of its grain was resistant to splitting.

Once proliferate all across England, elm trees have been in decline since the 60’s due to a disease called Dutch elm disease.

However in its pomp the elm tree was used for a variety of purposes. For example, the Romans favoured its branches for holding up their grapevines, while in England elm branches and leaves were used as livestock feed.

Read More: Plants Lending Their Names to Well-Known Places

As a tree dedicated to Morpheus, the god of sleep, elm wood was also a popular choice for making coffins.

Across the Atlantic, Native Americans prized the elm tree for its water resistance and robustness and used its wood to make canoes, household utensils, and even rope.

Elm tree
A rare sight now

Nowadays elm wood remains a commonly used timber and is still used in building boats as well as fashioning other boat parts, coffins and as flooring.

Elm wood is strong and has a very high split resistance and so is one of the most popular choices for decorative woodturning and in the making of small ornamental goods.

The water resistant wood is also used as cladding and for different types of joinery in interiors.


Some scientists believe that birch trees are likely to have been the first species of tree to re-establish forests in the UK as the frost receded at the end of the ice age.

This is because birch trees recolonize open areas quickly and for this reason they are sometimes referred to in ecology as a pioneer species.

silver birch
And known as the ‘golden lady’ during the autumn because of the beautiful colour the leaves turn

There are a number of birch varieties but only two that are native to the United Kingdom, namely the silver and downy varieties.

The species is a hardwood, although it is not as hard as oak and so is actually one of the most widely used types of wood.

Read More: Ancient Pine Resin Uses for Bushcrafters

In certain cultures, such as Celtic mythology, the birch is seen as a symbol of purity and renewal.

And just like with elm wood above, Native Americans favoured birch to make not only their canoes with, but also clothing, rudimental paper, and even their tents, or wigwams.

The bark of the tree is hardy yet pliable and is therefore suitable for a number of uses.


birch bark
A birch bark inscription excavated from Novgorod, circa 1240–1260

Utilasations of birch include in the manufacture of boxes, crates and a range of products from the wood turning industry,  including broom handles, craft products, toys, and more.

Birch wood is also one of the most commonly used timbers in making wood pulp, plywood, veneers, and paneling.

Sadly, the woodlands that were once populated by the species mentioned above have declined over the centuries due to deforestation and urbanisation.

However, thankfully it is heartening to know that their importance is now more widely recognized and efforts are being made to preserve what’s left of these majestic trees.

While we require their fruit for food and their wood for raw materials like timber, the sustainability of our woods and forests is also an important facet to consider for the sake of future generations.

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