It’s been a while since I last posted about British trees, but here is the next in the series, and it’s a noble one: the ash.
Fraxinus excelsior sounds more like a medieval chant than a Latin name for a tree. Or a Harry Potter spell, when I come to think of it. This might be nearer the truth, because in fact the word ‘fraxinus’ means ‘firelight’, and the addition of ‘excelsior’ conveys its excellence. Immediately, you can imagine a party of Vikings or Celts or Anglo-Saxons warming their hands in front of a blazing fire of ash logs.
Widespread throughout Europe, the ash is one of our largest native trees, and one of the most beautiful. Telling it apart from other trees is fairly easy in summer: the compound leaves consist of between nine and 13 smaller ‘leaflets’, with a single one at the tip, slightly toothed around the margin and reaching an overall length of seven or eight inches. The only other tree to confuse it with is the mountain ash, whose leaflets are slightly more serrated – and, of course, the tree itself is usually shorter in stature than the ash, which can reach a grand height of over 100 feet, with a huge spread and girth of trunk. To be sure, look at the way each leaf-stalk is fixed to the branch – opposing pairs will identify the ash.
It’s exhilarating to watch a big ash tree in high wind, as the gusts sweep through its branches and lift them like sails, whirling the leaves wildly against each other with a rushing sound that rises and falls like the ocean.
In winter the identification is a bit trickier, but the tip of each twig will be bearing black buds, ready to burst forth with new leaves in the spring; also, the habit of the tree itself can be a clue: the twigs of ash trees all tend to curve and point upwards, towards the sun, like spindly fingers.
“Every prudent Lord of a Manor should employ one acre of ground with Ash to every twenty acres of other land: since in as many years it would be more worth than the land itself.”
John Evelyn’s ‘Sylva’ (1664) quoted in ‘The New Sylva’ (2014) by G Hemery & S Simblet
Ash trees can live for up to 400 years, and traditionally are one of the preferred species for coppicing, producing long straight stems with beautiful pale bark. The wood is prized for its strength, elasticity and resilience.
Writing in ‘The New Sylva’, Gabriel Hemery says: “Before steel replaced timber, ash was the first choice for ploughs, harrows, rakes, cart axles, wheel rims, boat frames and various weapons, including pike handles,” and adds that “at one time all children would have known that the natural fork cut from an ash tree made a superior catapult.” Today, it is the material of choice for making tennis racquets, baseball bats and Irish hurley sticks. Its pale wood has also featured in the construction of the Morris Minor Traveller and Mini Countryman.
In his book ‘The Man Who Made Things Out of Trees’, author Robert Penn cut down a single ash tree and took the timber to a handful of expert carpenters and wheelwrights so that every square inch was used up. Each craftsman shares his individual approach to working with the wood, and the result is an amazing panoply of skills and knowledge.
“Unusually, ash can be either monoecious (meaning that both sexes occur on an individual tree) or dioecious, where any one tree has either all male or all female flowers. Some trees also alternate their flowering, bearing only male flowers in one year and females the next.” (Trees for Life)
The flowers, which are small and dark purple, appear in early spring, and are wind-pollinated; fertilised female flowers develop into a winged seed, which is known as a key, largely because they hang in dense bunches on the tree, waiting for dispersal by the wind. A mature tree can produce 100,000 seeds in a good year. In autumn the leaves turn yellow before falling quite quickly; no spectrum of colours for the ash, which reserves its beauty for the flames.
Traditional names for the seeds include ‘ash chats’, ‘ash candles’, and ‘cats and keys’. “In the days of Charles II they used to be pickled when they were young and tender, and eaten as a ‘delicate salading’.” (‘Trees and How They Grow’ by G Clarke Nuttall)
As for place names with an ‘ash’ element, there are so many that you can probably think of several without even trying: Ashbourne, Ashton, Ashfield… also Askrigg and Port Askaig, from the Viking ‘ask’ for ‘ash’. The Gaelic ‘uinsinn’ is not an element that I would recognise, but I remember in Wales seeing several instances of ‘onn’ (or the plural ‘onnen’), meaning ‘ash’, in streets and house names.
And this brings us to the legends and folklore of the ash, which are both powerful and ancient.
In Norse legend, there is an immense tree known as Yggdrasil, growing on an island surrounded by ocean. This mystical being is a ‘World Tree’ connecting the Nine Worlds of Norse mythology, and its branches reach up to the heavens and spread out over the whole world. Some interpreters have suggested that Yggdrasil is an ash.
I first learned about this at Rosslyn Chapel, of all places: the ‘Apprentice Pillar’ in the Lady Chapel is adorned with branches, thought to be of an ash tree, together with dragons or serpents that appear to be lurking around its roots.
“A deer fed on the ash leaves and from its antlers flowed the great rivers of the world.”
(Trees for Life)
This is a particularly beautiful and evocative image. I love the way the Vikings were thinking. Other sources suggest that there were four red deer stags grazing on the branches, and this number has been variously interpreted as the four seasons, or the four winds. Meanwhile, living in the tree of Yggdrasil is a squirrel, which carries messages from a serpent in the ocean to an eagle which dwells in the topmost branches. A goat also grazes on the tree, and from her udder springs an endless supply of mead, which is enjoyed by warriors feasting in the Great Hall of Odin.
There are so many interpretations of this legend: one version suggests that ‘Yggdrasil’ can be translated as ‘Odin’s horse’, which the god rode up and down the branches as he travelled between the Nine Worlds; and another story tells how Odin sacrificed himself by hanging from a tree – which may or may not have been Yggdrasil.
You can delve as deeply as you like into this wonderful and fertile legend, and you probably won’t reach the bottom – you’ll just emerge on the other side, like the wormhole that is Yggdrasil itself. It’s a powerful image, which the ancient Norse people used to explain life and death, and there are still echoes of this belief in modern culture:
“The people represented Yggdrasil by planting what was called a ‘care-tree’ or ‘guardian-tree’ in the centre of the homestead. It was a miniature version of Yggdrasil… It had a soul which followed the lives of those who grew up under its shadow and boughs… Many such care-trees can still be seen in Scandinavia. I would argue that this is the origin of the Christmas tree…”
Artur Lundkvist, via Ancient Origins
I was also very interested to read that the words ‘tree’ and ‘truth’ are intertwined: “That one of the Old English words for ‘troth/trouthe’ – treow – should be a homonym of treow ‘tree’ is no accident for both are descended from the same Indo-European root…” (‘A Crisis of Truth: Literature and Law in Ricardian England’ by Richard Firth Green)
On a more practical level, ash was considered to have protective and healing properties; and weapons such as bows, arrows and spear shafts were often made of ash or yew. Three of Ireland’s five ancient sacred trees were said to be ash, including the Branching Tree of Uisneach, planted by Fintan the Ancient at the centre of all Ireland, and the Sacred Tree of Creevna, which was reported to be still standing in the early 1800s. “Following the potato famine, emigrants to America whittled chips off the tree before setting sail, until there was nothing left of it.” (Robert Penn, ‘The Man Who Made Things Out of Trees’.)
In recent years, our populations of ash trees have been facing a double-bladed threat in the form of a fungal disease known as ash dieback (Chalara), and the invasive emerald ash borer beetle. This threatens not only the existence of the trees themselves, but the hundreds of invertebrates that thrive on them. Some experts are hoping that the trees will survive by becoming resistant to the disease, and there have been a few reports in the press that this is beginning to happen, which is very encouraging.
“The best hope for the long-term future of Britain’s ash trees lies in identifying the genetic factors which enable some ash trees to tolerate or resist infection, and using these to breed new generations of tolerant ash trees for the future.”
I looked up the entry for ash in my lovely little book ‘Trees and How They Grow’ by G Clarke Nuttall and was particularly interested to read this paragraph in the light of the Yggdrasil legend:
“A most extraordinary and quite unjustifiable superstition has persisted through many ages with regard to the peculiar aversion serpents are supposed to have to the Ash. It was reported that they would ‘sooner run into the fire than unto the boughs’; and that they ‘dare not so much as touch the morning and evening shadows of the tree’. Gerard remarks quite seriously that ‘it is a wonderful courtesie in nature that the Ash should floure before the Serpents appeare, and not cast his leaves before they be gone againe.’”
“Avoid an ash
It courts a flash”
and the curious custom of creating a ‘Shrew-Ash’ by burying, “with many incantations, a live shrew-mouse – which is not a true mouse at all – in a hole in its trunk, and twigs or leaves taken from this tree were a sovereign remedy if laid upon cattle that were suffering from acute cramp and pain, the said cramp being supposed, on quite unsupported evidence, to be due to a ‘shrew-mouse’ having run over the suffering part.” She reveals that the naturalist Gilbert White, in 1789, was aware of a Shrew-Ash standing near the church in Selborne, Dorset. White also recalled a custom that was practised to heal a rickety or ‘ruptured’ child: the trunk of a young ash tree was split, and the child was passed through the cleft. The tree was then bound up again, and if its wound healed, then the child would recover.
“Ash leaves would cure warts too, always provided one said to the tree, ‘Ashen tree, Ashen tree, pray buy these warts of me,’ as one placed the leaf on the warts.”
(G Clarke Nuttall)
Ash requires plenty of growing room, and is known to help drain the land on which it grows, giving rise to the old valediction “May your footfall be by the root of an Ash.” The leaves were a valuable fodder for livestock, being full of nutrients, and were even dried for winter feeding.
Our experience of trees is always so personal, but to me the ash seems to have a feminine presence, in contrast to the more masculine oak; if I had to explain it, I would say it probably comes from the shape of its leaves and the tree in general, and the elegant, pliant way in which it moves. I’ll be keeping a more careful eye open for ash trees in future, and watching for any deer that might be browsing on them.
Logs of birch wood burn too fast,
There’s a fire that will not last!
Chestnut’s only good, they say,
If for long it’s laid away.
But ash new or ash old
Is fit for a queen with a crown of gold!
Poplar makes a bitter smoke,
Fills your eyes and makes you choke!
It is by the Irish said,
Hawthorn bakes the sweetest bread.
But ash green or ash brown,
Is fit for a queen with a golden crown.
Elm wood burns like churchyard mould,
Even the very flames are cold.
Apple logs will fill your room
With an incense-like perfume.
But ash wet or ash dry,
Is fit for a queen to warm her slippers by!
Traditional poem, quoted in ‘The New Sylva’ by G Hemery and S Simblet
Support the Woodland Trust’s Tree Charter
In November 2017 the Woodland Trust will launch a Charter for Trees, Woods and People, to celebrate the 800th anniversary of the Charter of the Forest. More than 50 organisations, led by the Woodland Trust, are calling for people to speak out about how trees enhance their lives to make the true value of trees to society visible. These ‘tree stories’ will define the new charter, and will become part of an archive that shows the value of trees to people in the UK. Add your voice on the Tree Charter website.
- Trees for Life
- The Woodland Trust
- Forestry Commission
- Kew Gardens
- The Guardian (article by Stephen Moss, 23.3.16)
- The Telegraph (article by Sarah Knapton, 22.4.16)
- ‘The New Sylva‘ by Gabriel Hemery and Sarah Simblet, pub. Bloomsbury, 2014
- ‘Trees and How They Grow‘ by Gertrude Clarke Nuttall (1913)
- Rob Penn
- Ancient Origins
Images © Colin & Jo Woolf except black buds close-up which is via Wikimedia
More in my British trees series: