Woodcraft encompasses much more than knowing how to use a knife, learning how to make fire with sticks, chopping wood with an axe, or acquiring the skills to make a wickiup. Of course, most woodcrafters extend their knowledge far beyond those areas. One topic, however, that invariably gets left out is the knowledge of native plants. The flora that lives around us varies according to our part of the world. Canadians, for example, have different native plants from those living in Australia. Each geographical region has its own unique ecological makeup as species over time (both flora and fauna) filled niches that ultimately captured free or unutilized energy that flowed through the system. Remember that nature always attempts to transfer energy successfully from one point to another and in order to accomplish this many species occur that, in their own way, take advantage of available free energy. When energy is lost (oftentimes because humans have manipulated the system) the overall ecology degrades because the loss of biological diversity causes the waste of useable energy. Physicists call this form of lost energy entropy.
Some of us spend our lives studying the ways energy flows through biological systems and you may not be so inclined. But if you want to master the field of woodcraft you must learn the plants that grow around you. I’m not speaking of simply the edible or medicinal plants but all the plants. Train yourself to recognize different plant species and learn the group or family names that harbor each species. From there learn the genera and ultimately the exact species names. On forum sites we often see people speak of “elm” or “oak” or “ironwood” or any number of other common plant names. But it’s much better if you learn the scientific names because even within genera the individual species can vary greatly and common or folk names usually refer to many different types of plants: What one person calls “ironwood” in one area might be a completely different plant with the same common name in another area.
An old sendero trail in deep South Texas during winter. I identified 64 different plant species as I walked this trail on February 21, 2011.
Most people would hike the above trail and not see more than five or six plant species. They would not notice the differences between things like Ziziphus obtusifolia , Condalia spathulata and Koeberlinia spinosa. Nor would they see any differences between Prosopis glandulosa, Acacia rigidula, Pithecellobium ebano or Leucaena pulverulenta.
Near sunset: The knoll beyond the fence contains 48 different shrub species. Many of them by-the-way were used by pre and post-Columbian Indians for both food and medicinal sources. The Native Americans living in the area still employ those plants for various home remedies.
I’ve posted a link to a website that contains distribution maps of most US, Mexican and Canadian trees. Go to “Tree Species Range Maps.” Notice the number of species per genera. It’s a good place to start your native plant identification learning. Besides, it’s a lot of fun spending an afternoon identifying the plants growing naturally around you. After you’ve learned the woody species you can study shrubs then, if they’re available, you can concentrate on cacti (or succulents) and from there go to ferns and fungi. And don’t forget reptiles and amphibians…and mammals…and birds too. Then it’s on to rocks and soil types and….