The fire of the ash

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.

Ash tree, Kilmorie chapel 42Fraxinus 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.

Ash leaves, Dollar Glen 115Widespread 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.

AshIn 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.

Ash fingers cropAsh (1)The trunk is beautiful in its own right, because on a mature tree it is patterned with grooves and furrows that often create a lattice effect

“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, Dollar Glen (11)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.

Rob Pen bookIn 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)

Ash, CCampbellAsh branches framing a view of Castle Campbell

Ash, near BraemarNear Braemar

Ash tree, Castle Lachlan JW 47Kilmorie Chapel, Loch Fyne

Ash tree in autumn 1(Above & below):  Ash in autumn, Scottish Borders

Ash tree in autumn 2As 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.

Ash, Dollar Glen (5)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

Ash tree near Athelstaneford

Ash tree near Athelstaneford

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.”

Forestry Commission

Ash tree Dollar Glen

'Trees and How They Grow' book (9)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.’”

Ash tree, ObanThe author goes on to reflect on other folklore surrounding the ash, including the old warning about ash trees inviting lightning:

“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.

Ash, WindermereJust checking for deer and goats

Ash, Dollar Glen 15Beech wood fires burn bright and clear,
If the logs are kept a year.
Oaken logs burn steadily,
If the wood is old and dry.
But ash dry or ash green,
Makes a fire fit for a queen.

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

Tree Charter logo copyIn 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.

Sources:

Images © Colin & Jo Woolf except black buds close-up which is via Wikimedia

Frost-covered needles

Scots pine

More in my British trees series:

The Scots pine:  keeper of the forest

The darkness of the yew

The fragrance of juniper

The magic of the birch

The holly bears the crown

Comments

  1. Ash dieback has reached us here on the west coast of Wales now, so we may be saying goodbye to many of these amazing trees. I think I read that about 10% are resistant, so there is some hope…

  2. From the first photo it’s obvious why the Norse would have thought of it as the World Tree, it certainly is majestic. And with it’s life span, edible seeds and excellence as firewood it would be highly valued in any culture. We’ve been having problems with the ash borer in the States, also. Here in Illinois they’ve been taking out any trees that show signs of infestation. But I doubt they’re doing that in the forests. I’m glad to hear there’s signs of resistance showing up. They’ll be back. 🙂

    • Trees were so important in these ancient cultures, and their properties would have been known to everyone, passed down as wisdom from generation to generation. Sorry to hear that your ash trees are also suffering, and I hope that there is a solution soon.

  3. Susan Abernethy says:

    I have a glorious ash tree in my backyard. We have had it treated for emerald ash borer.

  4. Our ash trees are always the last into leaf. I love the thought of the care-tree. It reminded me of my late mum’s favourite saying ‘what’s in t’ tree comes out in the branches’ a nod to the family traits of passing generations. We lost a sizeable ash limb to ‘sudden limb drop’ last summer. Something we had never heard of before…

  5. Thanks for yet another wonderful piece of work Jo. Your architectural/historical pieces slake the thirst for knowledge but whenever you write about trees you soothe the soul and make a sad heart ready to face another day. Please, keep it up!

    • That’s such a lovely comment, Steve! It’s lovely to know that the joy I have in sharing the beauty of trees comes across. That’s the real reason for writing, after all. I’ve also learned a lot about trees through doing so, and it has made me much more aware of them. Thank you very much, and I will certainly keep it up!

  6. That was interesting, Jo. It took me right back to my early schooldays and how we were taught to identify trees – the ash by its sticky black buds. Happy days.
    Cheers, Alen

    • Sticky buds! I remember it too – strange how these random things stay with you! I was not at all fussed by biology at that time, however – nor history, come to that. Glad it brought back some memories! 🙂

  7. Oh Jo, this was so interesting! I must admit the ash is one of my favourites. You might also like to know that ash is used in bell towers as the stay which prevents the bell turning full-circle.

    • That’s interesting, Anny! I didn’t know that – so thank you! Quite an important function, in that case! I love ash trees too, for their lovely shapes and beautiful leaves – more flowing than the oak. For some reason I’m noticing a lot more of them now! 🙂

  8. You’ve solved a little mystery for me. I’ve seen twigs curving upwards in winter like those in your photo and wondered what type of tree they were on. Next time I see them I’ll be able to recognise them as ash, thank you. I really hope the experts are right and the trees are building up a resistance to ash dieback. It would be a terrible pity if we lost all our lovely ash trees.

    • Haha, that’s good, Lorna! I am always happy to find out these things myself. It’s good to be able to identify trees – I have learned a lot over the years but there are still many I don’t know. I hope that nature will find its own defences against these diseases, like you say – sometimes that is the best and most long-lasting way.

  9. Ash trees in Ontario are under threat from the EAB as well unfortunately. Hopefully enough of these stately trees can be saved on both sides of the ocean.

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