Trees And You

Your lives – and those of your ancestors – are or were linked to trees. This section outlines how.


Just how much people's lives revolved around woods, forests and their products in the past is revealed by the wealth of surnames reflecting the past or present links to woods in this country. People's surnames often indicate what they did or where they lived back in Mediaeval times.

Just casting your eye down the school register or the phone book reveals how closely people's lives were tied up with trees in the past.

How many people do you know who have surnames like Wood, Woodman, Woodward, Woodiman or Woodger, or Forest or Forester or one of its variations in spelling, or have names associated with places such as Blackwood or Underwood or Ashmore or Ashwell? Other people have surnames like the trees themselves - such as Oak or Beech or Ashe or Rowntree.

That is not to mention the whole list of other craftsmen who then worked the timber - the Wheelwrights, the Barrels, the Coopers, the Sawyers and the Carpenters.

No doubt you can think of a lot more but I hope we have convinced you just how tied up your ancestor's lives were with trees and forests in the not too distant past.

More: Try the "Penguin Dictionary of Surnames".

Place names

The beginning or end of place names often indicate a tree origin - the woodsomething or something wood. Some are very obvious like those which actually have wood or forest in their name, or some other local equivalent, such as copse or covert or gill.

These topographical names form a large and diverse group in which types of tree or areas of trees figure prominently.

Many tree place names are derivatives of old English names. For example, many beginning with Ac come from the old English Ac meaning oak tree or acorns. So we have Accrington in Lancashire meaning a farmstead or village where acorns were found or stored; Acle in Norfolk signifies an oakwood or a clearing in it; Acombe in York is a place with oak trees and Acton is a farmstead or village next to oak trees or specialising in working oak timber.

On the High Weald in Kent and Sussex, the ending "denn" or "den" comes from the old English for a woodland pasture, especially for swine. The ending "holt", or its corruption to "hot", originates from the old English for a wood or thicket and "hyrst" was a wooded hill and is normally written "hurst" nowadays.

"Thwaite" derives from the Norse for a clearing in the forest - and the ending "ley" or "leigh" meant the same in Anglo-Saxon.

The names of woods themselves often reveal their past. If a wood is named after a parish and adjoins a parish boundary, it is likely to be very old indeed. Woods with names such as Spring, Cuts, Coppice or Copse are often ancient woodlands whereas Plantation, Covert, Belt, Furze and Scrubs are more likely to be 19th century in origin.

Quite how the RFS Pancake Wood on the Chilterns got it's name is anyone's guess.

More: Try the "Oxford Dictionary of English Place-Names" by A.D. Mills.

Using trees

Humans use trees in many different ways.

Our lives are full of wood-based products - paper, cardboard, construction materials, furniture - it's all around us and we sometimes take it for granted. But it all comes from trees.

Trees also give us ample opportunities for leisure and pleasure.

They provide us with beauty, oxygen, shelter, air-conditioning, pollution filters and habitats for many types of wildlife.

Through management, trees grown as timber crops and/or for amenity provide employment and economic prosperity.

More: About the multiple benefits trees provide us with is in the chapter on Wood Based Products.


Bits and pieces of trees have provided mankind with all sorts of natural medicinal remedies down the ages. New ones are still being found.

Some of them like Aspirin and Sorbitol are now made synthetically but had plant origins.

Concoctions from leaves and bark from the willow Salix alba have been used for centuries to lower fever, relieve pain and reduce inflammation. The active ingredient - salicylates - are present in many plants and willows and poplars are especially rich in them.

The modern synthetic equivalent is acetylsalicylic acid - the aspirin. Medicinal herbalists still use willow and poplar bark extracts to treat painful inflammations like arthritis and rheumatism.

The botanical genus Sorbus - the rowans and whitebeams - includes 11 endangered British endemic or native species. It gave its name to Sorbitol - one of the commonest low-calorie sweeteners used by weight-conscious Westerners. Today Sorbitol is made by chemical conversion of glucose in the laboratory rather than harvesting Sorbus berries but it was the tree that led chemists to this multi-million pound product.

In Britain parts of many trees were - and still are - used to cure or alleviate all sorts of health problems.

For example, oak bark and dead leaves are rich in tannins. Especially in leaves, tannins probably provide the tree with natural protection against insect and fungal attacks. And we use tannins to cure leather - and oak extracts to treat piles and as a gargle to cure gum infections and sore throats. In homeopathy, tincture of acorns is used for liver problems and to reduce alcohol dependency.

Although not a UK native, the bark and conkers from horse chestnut trees are processed by the pharmaceutical industry to extract several active ingredients - including complex saporins - known as aescin. After processing, these give products which strengthen veins and reduce inflammation - and are used to treat varicose veins and piles. Other extracts from conkers go into skin and hair conditioners and bath oils.

Often labelled "the people's medicine chest", nearly all parts of the common elder have provided remedies down the ages.

Among the 8,000 globally threatened trees, 17 species are of proven medicinal importance. About 65% of all medicinal plant species are trees.

Taxol is a potent drug for treating breast, ovarian and lung cancer. It was discovered in Pacific Yew Taxus brevifolia and originally extracted on a commercial scale from its bark, threatening its very existence. Bark from 10 trees is needed to produce enough Taxol to treat each patient. Using clippings from yew hedges, establishing plantations and synthesising the molecule in the laboratory have taken the pressure off this tree in North America.

Trees create a healthier environment all round by filtering out pollution, pumping out oxygen and acting as an air-cooling system.

More: Details are on our Trees by Species page.

FC Research Report 01. Health and well-being: trees, woodlands and natural spaces. By Elizabeth O'Brien. 2003.

FC Research Report 013. Trees are company: social science research into woodlands and the natural environment. By Elizabeth O'Brien. 2002.