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Ash

Latin name: Fraxinus excelsior

Native words: Old Irish (nin) Scots Gaelic (fuinseann) Old English (aesc) Welsh (onnen) eastern Celtic ()

Ogham sign: N

Height when mature: 30-40m

Height after 10 years: 4m 13 ft

 

Ash botanical description:

Ash is our tallest native deciduous trees when fully mature. Like sycamore, it drops winged seed pods called ‘ash keys’ in autumn, which contain the seeds. Ash keys hang in great bunches from autumn onwards often remaining right through winter. Ash leaves are made up of many opposing leaflets, which lie along a mid rib; the whole leaf is on a stalk The leaves come out later than any other, never before the end of April. The purple flower clusters appear in early May. The old saying “oak before ash we will have a splash - ash before oak we will have a soak”, which refers to the leaf burst, is not true! Ash trees have an olive green bark on the trunk, which is smooth in young trees but heavily ridged when mature. Branches, which have a greenish grey colour, often fall leaving holes, which are occupied by nesting birds. The branches have a tendency to incline downwards before rising up near their end.

Ash natural history and ancient wisdom:

Most people know ash trees from hedgerows, where with oak, it is the main mature native tree. Ash trees are excellent ‘pioneers’ and they will often be the second native tree to colonise unwooded areas, following hawthorn. Over the past century, ash has increased in the UK and is slowly taking over ancient woods. This is probably due to 3 factors. Firstly, he cessation of coppicing, which prevented many ashes invading hazel coppices and reaching maturity. Secondly, the large areas of post industrial brown field sites in Britain have been successfully colonised by ash trees. It has also quickly filled the gap left in hedgerows by elm in the wake of Dutch Elm Disease, which struck in the late 1970s. Ash is the original ‘lightning tree’ and mature ash are regularly split in half by strikes, yet continue to grow. Ash trees thrive in limestone areas, and small remnant areas in the White peak (Derbyshire) suggest the whole area was covered with ancient ash forest at one time. Other places to see ancient ash woods include on the limestone pavement of the Kent estuary and the Mendip Hills in Somerset. The most northerly ash wood is at Rassal in Wester Ross, northern Scotland. Ash is a very hard wood and is still used for tool handles of all kinds; snooker cues, oars, cart wheels etc. Its strength probably led to its adoption in folklore as a representation of masculinity. The Norse tree of life, Yggdrassil, whose crown was in heaven and roots in hell was a giant ash. Norse mythology also records that the first man was made from an ash. This masculine reference appears in later English folklore. Girls would tie a bundle of twigs with strips of ash (one each) and throw them into the fire. According to how the strips gave way, the girls knew when they would be married. Celtic peoples refused to cut ash lest their house be consumed by fire. In Irish legend, famous ash trees included the Tree of Uisnech, the Tree of Tortu and the Bough of Dathi. The juice of the branches contains the effective element of quinine, and was used as a cure all. The strength of the tree could be transferred to a sick child by passing the youth through a cleft trunk 3 times. Nicholas Culpeper the famous herbalist recommended eating ash seeds because: “the kernels within the husks commonly called ashen keys…prevaileth against stitches and pains in the side”.

Ash place names in the UK:

Ashurst (Hampshire) Ashley (Cheshire), Ashwell (Herts), Ashford (Kent) Askrigg (Yorkshire), Ashdown Forest (Sussex).

Ash wildlife rating:

Very good. The holes left by fallen branches are perfect for nuthatches and woodpeckers to nest in. Ash keys are a good source of food for the rarely seen bullfinch. Many insects live in the fissured trunk and bats will enter splits in the bark to roost.

Ash trees good points/ bad points:

Very demanding of the soil. The roots spread powerfully and rapidly and can undermine a building nearby. Only suitable for large gardens, but excellent for filling gaps in hedgerows or native woodland, as they survive well.

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