Which way Mister Tree? I’m lost but you can tell me!

As we move slowly from one season to another it is worth taking notice of the changes in nature; from the small to the big things. Observing these consciously, in the present moment, can positively impact on our wellbeing as well as giving us a sense of our place in the world with its patterns and rhythms. You might take a journal with you on your daily outing or simply pass a familiar tree or regular path and when you get home just make note of anything, however small, that you have noticed change: to burst forth, flower, fruit or decay.

Plants can give you a real sense of appreciation of place. They can tell you even where you might be or where you might be heading. You can even navigate with the help of plants! Recognising this can help unlock a more fundamental connection with, and appreciation of, nature.

In this blog we will talk about observing plants to navigate by. You don’t need to do this, although its a skill, but read on and you’ll understand that plants can tell us more than we realise. and this is an example of it.

Plants, habitat, soil and climate

Plants obviously are pretty static (!) so they have an tendency to congregate in greater numbers in preferred environments. This means that if they are shade loving, acid-soil loving, frost-hardy plants then they will grow in certain places and in certain ‘aspects’ whereas other plants might not prosper. It is therefore useful to know before you travel to an area if there there are any macro trends to the habitats, soils and climates.

For instance, it is worth taking note, not only of the height of the treeline on the north side of the mountain compared to the south, but also if the species of tree is predominantly different. The side of the mountain that is exposed more to extremes of climate will tend to have a lower tree-line and maybe also a more hardy type of tree. This might help with your orientation and direction-setting / keeping even in poor visibility.

Knowing what plants are rare or are specific to certain geographic areas may also help – Alexanders, the edible umbellifer, has a tendency to grow in greater profusion near the sea. This does not mean in sight of it but in proximity to it – which might still be several miles away. Some parts of a country might have more common plants and trees than other parts where they are rare. So a quick look at plant distribution maps to identify ‘marker’ species might also be a useful addition prior to departure to places unknown!

Plants and moisture

Most plants need moisture. Some more than others. For instance moss likes moisture and tends to be more prevalent is places away from the drying effects of the sun. In the northern hemisphere the north side of stones, walls and trees and the ground in these sheltered shadows away from the sun will favour this type of plant and diminish those who like warmer, drier soil. It can’t be relied upon as there are many micro-conditions that make exceptions to this rule but it can possibly give you a clue.

Plants and wind

Plants can be good indicators of prevailing wind conditions as they are shaped by them over time.

Trees are a good example of this –  we have all see those exposed wind-blown trees whose branches have been bent by years of the relentless prevailing breeze. Know the direction of this wind and you have natural direction finders.

“exposed tree shaped by years of prevailing winds from right to left or in this case from south-west to north-east”

Wind also affects smaller plants – some will seek shelter in the lee of rocks or obstacles to stay out of the wind. Even grasses will leave the mark of being exposed to the prevailing wind  – even if the wind is blowing in a different direction. The wind-blown grasses of the moor on exposed slopes (ie: not channelled by the contours of the land) will be flattened away from the prevailing wind.

“blades of grass aligned and facing in the direction of the prevailing wind.”

Wind loosened grass collects on the windward spikes of gorse bushes – just look for the general ‘face’ of bushes in an area with the heaviest ‘snagging’. Around the edge of rocks the slipstream of the prevailing wind may shape the grass too.

“moor-grass collecting on the side of the gorse bush facing the prevailing wind”

Plants and sun

The sun can also affect plants many plants follow the track of the sun. Some plants even align themselves in relation to the sun in other ways that might point you in the right direction. For instance, the prickly lettuce or compass plant aligns it leaves vertically and point in a north-south direction on hot-sunny days in an attempt to keep cool in the midday sun. Taking the average alignment of a couple of these plants and their leaves in an exposed spot (it: not affected by building or trees) will give you a fairly good estimate of which way north and south is.

“leaves are aligned in the vertical plane and facing north-south to reduced exposure to the heat of the midday sun (due south)”

The shape of some trees can be markedly shaped by the sun. If you walk around a tree which stands on open ground and is not affected by neighbouring trees, building or landforms you should be able to pick out differences between the north side and the south side. Bear in mind that some species of tree are very susceptible to showing this and some are not, just as some species are very susceptible to wind shaping which might confuse your ‘reading of the tree’.

The south side or sunny side of the tree (in the northern hemisphere – the opposite in the southern hemisphere) will have branches that reach out more ‘horizontally’ towards the sun.  On the north side of the tree the branches will have a tendency to reach upwards more vertically towards the light and to angle the leaves in a way to gain maximum benefit from the sun on the opposite side of the tree. As you can see from the picture below this can dramatically alter the shape of the tree…thereby giving you an indicator of the direction of south. This exaggerated growth on one side of the tree can be seen on many other plants and shrubs but is more visible on trees. If you see a tree stump, it also can help you find your way. Look at the tree rings on the stump. The tree rings will be thicker on the side to the north and thinner on the southern side.

“south side has more leaf growth and branches are reaching out more horizontally”

The next time you go out into nature, just take a little more notice, be a little more curious and you’ll be surprised what nature is trying to tell you. Even the direction you want to take 😉

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