Originally published in Issue 18 of The Bushcraft Journal, this article compliments other posts on this blog around natural tinders.
In this issue I want to continue with tinders, this time looking at inner barks. In the last issue I discussed downy flower heads, which are largely seasonal in nature. This isn’t the case with inner barks and they can generally be collected at any time of year, but none the less there are a couple of caveats around collecting and processing inner barks – you need to find a tree or limb that is dead and preferably upright.
Again, in the last issue, when discussing downy flower heads, I said that you don’t necessarily need to know the species, just the properties you’re looking for. That’s not the case with inner barks as only a small proportion of trees have inner bark that’s useful to us as a tinder. This means that you need to be on top of your game at tree identification as you probably aren’t going to be able to identify the tree by leaf, or even bud, but from its bark. Now if you’re just beginning on your tree identification, going by the leaves is going to be a good starting point. Once you’ve positively identified a tree by its leaves, go back when the leaves have dropped (for most broadleaf trees and a few coniferous ones) and look at other features on the tree, such as the buds, the structure of the tree and the bark; this way you can build up your knowledge base.
With that in mind, I’ve included photos of leaves, buds and bark where I have them.
What is inner bark
Inner bark refers to the bast layer of fibrous strands that lie beneath the outer bark (these fibrous strands often make good materials for natural cordage). In this first photo I have some sweet chestnut bark in my hand. You’re looking at the outer bark.
You can see the inner fibres when I turn the bark around.
Once you’ve found a suitable tree or limb, you’ll need to harvest and prepare the fibres. Depending on the condition of the tree, you might be able to simply pry the bark away with your fingers, or you might need to use your knife.
Once you have the bark off you’ll need to either use a knife to scrape the fibres away, or else pick them off with your fingers. Sometimes I find that it helps to snap the bark first.
Whichever way you do this, pull the fibres apart and rub them in your hands so that they end up as fluffy as you can get them.
I said earlier that not all tree species produce an inner bark that you can use as tinder, but here are the ones that I’ve come across so far.
Lime can be found in much of the temperate northern hemisphere and consists of about 30 species. They’re common in parts of Europe and North America (where they’re often referred to as linden or basswood), but it’s especially numerous in Asia. As a quick aside, they aren’t anything to do with the green lime fruit that you put in your G&T (the lime fruit is actually a hybrid citrus that probably originated in southeast Asia).
Here in Kent we’re most likely to encounter Small-leaved Lime (Tilia cordata) in the woods, although I’ve come across the odd Large-leaved Lime (Tilia platyphylos) as well. In towns and cities Common Lime (Tilia x europaea), a hybrid between large and small-leaved lime, is easy to spot.
Sweet chestnut (Castanea sativa) is found in southwest Asia and much of Europe. It was introduced into northern Europe, including the British Isles, by the Romans as a food source. Although the sweet chestnuts in the British Isles produce edible chestnuts, it isn’t in the same quantities as you might find further south, so consequently it’s more often grown for its timber; sweet chestnut is often coppiced with the aim of producing fence posts. Here in Kent there’s still a chestnut coppicing industry and it’s almost impossible to not find if you’re walking through Kentish woodlands.
Poplar (Populus) is a genus of around 30 trees that are closely related to the willows. They’re found across the northern hemisphere and often are an indicator of water. They aren’t native to the British Isles (see exception below) but were probably introduced not long after separation from mainland Europe. In North America they’re often referred to as cottonwood. Poplars can hybridise with other poplar species and these hybrids can also hybridise with other poplar species and other poplar hybrids, so sometimes identifying them to species level is tricky. Aspen (Populus tremula) is a member of this genus and is native to the British Isles.
At the beginning of this article I said that you should collect from standing dead, and whilst this is the ideal, a couple of years back I found a poplar that had died and fallen. It looked as if it hadn’t been on the ground long so I stripped off a section and it was fine, so always worth a look. I also harvested some of the wood, which I’ve since used for friction fire lighting.
Western red cedar
Cedar is the name given to coniferous trees from many different genera, most of which are not true cedars; true cedars belong to the genus Cedrus. Western red cedar is one of the many species that isn’t a true cedar; it’s actually a member of the Thuja genus, which in turn is in the Cupressaceae, or Cypress, family. If you’re wondering why this is important, it’s not just nomenclature, it’s useful thing to know as other species of cypress also produce an inner bark that can be used as tinder, including Leylandii, the source of many disputes between neighbours.
Western red cedar is native to the west coast of North America but can also be found in the British Isles where it was introduced as a timber crop after the Second World War. It’s a useful tree as not only does it provide a very fine, fibrous inner bark, but the outer bark can be used for bark containers and the wood can be used for friction fire lighting.
In the United States working with western red cedar is controlled as it can cause asthma and eye irritation, so exercise caution when using this one.
Depending on who’s doing the counting, there are between 30 to 40 species of elm (Ulmus) across the northern hemisphere. But to be up front, it isn’t a species I’ve used myself. Here in Kent, elm was annihilated by Dutch elm disease and so I’ve never found any to try.
I talked about clematis (Clematis vitalba) in the last issue, in relation to the downy flower head it produces. A couple of year ago wandering through the woods with Willow, our dog, I found a clematis vine that was about 15cm in diameter. I cut a section out with the intention of making hearth boards for use with a hand drill. As I was making the boards I noticed a fine inner bark. It doesn’t fluff as well as the others I’ve mentioned, but it makes a decent tinder bundle.
Next issue I’ll be looking at outer barks as a tinder. In the meantime, get out there and practice!