This Week: The Ice Saints are certainly calling the weather this month – hopefully gardeners, farmers and plants everywhere will not be caught out! That said, we have had some glorious days this last week: swifts have returned and are wheeling in the air over the Common, most of dandelion-esque single yellow flowers you now see standing tall on the Common are cat’s ear and the first of the lovely lemon yellow mouse-ear hawkweed has begun to flower. Do also stop to take a peek at the delicate holly flowers that are often overlooked.
Ash (Fraxinus excelsior) In the same family as the Olive tree, Ash was among the first dozen species of tree to recolonise after the ice age. It has a special place in mythology and many uses, but it is a wild tree, often self-seeded and viewed by some as ‘coarse’. It can grow tall, but in the open, like oak, tends to branch low. In winter it is the only tree with coal-black buds and in Spring can be seen with bunches of seeds or ‘keys’ hanging on from the previous year. Its bark is like oak – rough and fissured, but typically greyer/less brown. The bark on young trees and newer branches will be smooth and green/grey. The leaves are compound, with 3 – 6 pairs of leaflets either side of the centre with one leading leaflet. They fall early, typically with the first frost, even before going brown. Ash vies with oak for being the last to burst into leaf, allowing light to reach and warm the ground layer before new leaves cast their shade. It is the reason you will find some of our finest swathes of English bluebells in an ancient Ash or Oakwood. The old folktale predicts: “Ash before oak, in for a soak; oak before ash, in for a splash.” This year oak was just ahead of ash, and then the rain came!
Manna Ash (F. ornus) A native of the Black Sea region, it was introduced quite recently and can be distinguished in winter by its light brown buds with dense grey hairs.
Raywood Ash (F. augustifolia ‘Raywood’, previously F. oxycarpa). There is a possibility we have some on the Common and this is currently being investigated further. They are mostly planted for their red autumn foliage and are popular as street trees.
Mountain Ash or Rowan (Sorbus aucuparia). A member of the Rosaceae family, this other ‘Ash’ is also a native and welcome – we have many on the common, mostly large shrub size. Arriving at much the same time as F excelsior, it is found across the British Isles. It owes its Mountain Ash name to surviving at greater altitude than any other tree in this country (about 1,000m) and having similar complex leaves which colour well in autumn. The tree is covered in clusters of white flowers in Spring, which in turn become clusters of red berries in Autumn, providing excellent food for many birds and a rather sour source of vitamin C for humans when cooked as a jelly.
Ash on the Common: We have many ash trees on the common ranging from fully mature trees, as alongside the cricket field, to a host of younger specimens, including a ‘half grove’ of trees around one of the London Planes on the south side of Maisie’s Meadow. One of the issues with ash is that birds often ‘plant’ seeds in their droppings so saplings shoot up within the canopy of more mature trees. On occasion this can shade out the original tree which dies, leaving a circle of ash trees providing a very mystical grove. Older Ash trees will also spread their roots at the base of the bole, adding to their splendour, suggesting they understand the mysteries of life, linking land below to the skies above.
Mythology: In Norse mythology Ash is the original tree of life. Yggdrasil (on which Odin sacrificed himself to gain knowledge) had three roots, covering Hel, Jotnar (frost) and mankind. In a variation, Yggdrasil grew on an island surrounded by the ocean in which lived the World serpent. In Greek mythology the ash tree nymphs, Meliae, grew from the blood of Uranus when he was killed by his son, along with the Furies and the Giants – from the Meliae came the men of the Bronze Age. In Irish mythology, drawn from the Vikings, the ash is uinnseann (pron. ‘Ooshin’), a backbone of life and protective: three of the five trees guarding the isle were ash. In England ash was seen as healing and protective.
Uses: The name Ash probably derives from the Norse word for spear and it was certainly used for spears, arrows and even bows (unless yew was available). Coppiced ash grows strong and straight, providing good wood for staves after a few years and oars after about twenty. The wood later became much used for load bearing, such as in cartwheels and axles. Joints in ash are said to be stronger than any other wood (probably true of native northern woods). Ash is still used in the manufacture of new Morgan cars – forget the myth that the chassis is ash – it is not! The bodywork is formed over a frame of ash, providing a lightweight, flexible and shock-absorbing frame, as well as its decidedly old-style charm. Ash is also used in furniture frames. The name Fraxinus (firelight) comes from its value as a fuel, whether as logs or in faggots (bound staves). A favourite of country people, Ash is the only wood that will burn green, as celebrated in the Firewood Poem: ‘…but ash wet or ash dry – a king shall warm his slippers by’.
Diseases: Sadly, ash is suffering from die-back, a fungal attack which arrived in Europe about 30 years ago and has spread to the UK in the past 16-20 years – possibly on the wind but also on imported saplings. The movement ban on ash within the UK and from EU countries since 2012 has been recently lifted. The trees fight back but appear to succumb to repeated infection. We fear the worst for this ‘pandemic’, the result of a transfer of the fungus from a different species ash in the far East which has natural immunity, unlike our own native species. Several years ago, FoBC took part in the national ‘Ashtag’ project, now finished, that was set up to record infection and importantly, resistance, to this devastating infection. The search for how to deal with this disease goes on. I hesitate to say more as this is the subject of Will Dartnell’s MSc dissertation.
Life of Ash: Rather than end on that sad note, we know that tree roots live much longer than the exposed wood above, and that if coppiced regularly a tree can survive a very long time. Left to grow, ash has a lifespan of 200-250 years. There is a coppiced ash stool in Suffolk, now eighteen foot across, estimated at 1,000 years. Let us hope this stool and other trees remain uninfected, so some can live to continue our association with this tree as far into the future as it goes back into our past.
Next Week: Birch
Image Credits: Trees A W Wilson@wildlondonpics. Ash Tag S Morgan
The Firewood Poem by Lady Celia Congreve 1930