Thoughts on Ash

Dear Readers, I am continuing to read through Archie Miles’ book on British trees and thought that today I’d look at the ash tree. It’s one of my favourites, with its elegant leaves and those buds like tiny hooves, and the fact that we are likely to lose most of the species because of ash dieback makes them even more precious.

You might remember that in an earlier post this week, I was hoping that the Australian Raywood ashes in the cemetery might have some resistance to the disease. Alas, it appears not to be so, so even these beauties might not be spared.

An avenue of Raywood ashes in St Pancras and Islington Cemetery

In the cemetery, the ashes pop up all over the place, and Miles suggests that the ash was the tree that colonised most quickly after the hurricane in 1987, and the impact of Dutch elm disease. It is a fast-growing tree, and historically known as the husbandman’s tree, used for agricultural implements and as fuel wood – it is said to burn well even when green. I love its delicacy (which gave rise to the name of ‘Venus of the Woods’) but its very short season (it is one of the last trees to come into leaf and one of the first to lose them) has made it unpopular in gardens, though I suspect that some of the fancier varieties might tickle a gardeners’ fancy.

Although some people think of ash trees as mundance, workaday trees they have a very surprising capacity to change their sex from one year to another. This is particularly confusing because ash trees can produce male, female or hemaphroditic flowers, either on separate trees or all on a single tree. Botanists don’t know why the tree can do this, but speculate that it might give an advantage when the climatic conditions for setting seed are ideal, or when there is a lot of competition. It might also be handy if a space suddenly opens up for colonisation – in this case the more seeds the better! It might well explain why ash is capable of popping up anywhere (I have one in my garden that I have to coppice every year before it takes over completely).

Photo One by Rosser1954, CC BY-SA 4.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

Male Ash flowers and buds (Photo One)

Ash trees flower once they’re thirty to forty years old. The flowers appear on last year’s growth before the leaves appear, but they can bloom anytime from late March to May, and Miles tells us that it’s believed that this allows the tree to compensate for damage to the earliest flowers from the late spring frosts. The male flowers appear first (as in the photo above), then the hermaphrodite flowers and then the female ones. Only the.female flowers will turn into the ash keys (known as samaras).

Photo Two by By Pleple2000 - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1564105

Ash tree samaras (Photo Two)

When you consider the long associations between ash and humans, it’s not surprising that there is a lot of folklore about the tree. Miles quotes a rhyme that young women said when they were hoping to find a sweetheart:

Even ash, even ash,
I pluck thee off the tree;
The first young man that I do meet
My lover he shall be.

The young woman was supposed to put the ash leaf in her left shoe and wait to see what happened.

Ash was also supposed to be protective against snake bites, and, if you did get bitten, it was said by Dioscorides, first-century Greek physician, to be ‘singularly good against the bitings of viper, adder or other venomous beast’. More usefully in our present day, when we are unlikely to be molested by serpents, Culpeper thought that an extract from the leaves would ‘abate the greatness of those who are too gross or fat‘.

Perhaps most fascinating, however, is the belief that ash could be used to cure a rupture in a child. Miles remarks that the Reverend Gilbert White, writing in 1776, described how parents of a child so afflicted would pass the infant through the trunk of an ash tree that had been split with an axe. The tree would then be bound up again, and once it healed, so would the child. The ritual was still being performed as late as 1902 in Devon.

What a beautiful and useful tree the ash is! A glimmer of hope on the preservation of the species in light of ash dieback is the Ash Archive, which consists of a collection of 3,000 ash trees planted in Hampshire. They comprise cuttings taken from ash dieback tolerant trees observed in the wild and grafted onto ash rootstocks. Their development will be monitored, in the hope that some will have a long-lasting resistance to the fungus that causes the disease. At some point in the future it might then be possible to plant these trees, or the seeds that come from them, back into the wild. Let’s hope that there is a future for this beautiful tree here in the UK.

Photo Three by Willow, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

Ash tree (Fraxinus excelsior) (Photo Three)

You can buy Archie Miles Book ‘The Trees that Made Britain – An Evergreen History’ here.

Photo Credits

Photo One by Rosser1954, CC BY-SA 4.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Two by By Pleple2000 – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1564105

Photo Three by Willow, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

11 thoughts on “Thoughts on Ash

  1. Claire

    Thank you for this interesting piece . From my window, I can see 2 rather sick ash trees. This is so sad.
    Ash leaves are still sold as a herbal supplement in France( as pills or herbal tea ). They are cited in the French Pharmacopeia as anti inflammatory, diuretic and laxative. Country people in some areas used to brew a sort of cider ( frénette) from ash leaves with sugar and yeast. Frénette is manufactured and sold in some areas( although not very common).

    Reply
    1. Bug Woman Post author

      The demise of these trees is so sad, and in the UK the spread seems to be inexorable. There are some very old trees in the north of England who have survived on the moors, stunted but resilient. I’m hoping against hope that they survive.

      Reply
  2. Sarah

    The ash is one of my favourite trees too and I find ash dieback unbearably sad. I do see apparently healthy trees around and hope that more are resistant than we realise.

    I am only just old enough to remember life before the Dutch elm disease epidemic of the 70s. I had thought I’d forgotten what it was like to live with large elms until in Brighton earlier this year I walked through a park with a thick carpet of elm seeds on the ground. Seeing the pretty papery seed cases en masse triggered memories of walking through them as a child. But there are still elms about, even mature individuals (I know of several giants in Surrey, and also in Cornwall) so if a natural predator is found for the beetles that carry the fungus, I have hopes that elms could come back. Ditto ash.

    One question from your piece: what is a rupture in a child?

    Reply
    1. Bug Woman Post author

      I think what they probably meant was something like a ruptured tendon or other limb injury – that seems to be an explanation for the sympathetic magic of binding up the tree afterwards. But good question! And yes, Brighton has worked very hard to preserve its elms – it had to cut a very fine tree down recently because it had Dutch elm disease, but they are very watchful and I think that’s what’s preserved the trees so far. There is an absolutely magnificent one on Marylebone High Street if you’re ever in London, which goes completely unremarked by most passersby…

      Reply
  3. Claire

    https://www.inrae.fr/evenements/emission-webtv-cloture-frene-face-chalarose-defis-demain
    http://www.fraxinus.fr/ Here are two links, unfortunately in French, (but maybe you can have them translated on internet) one published in 2016 by Inrae, a public research institute. The other one dates from 2020 and has been published by a professional body of forest owners.
    Main conclusions:
    Young trees seem to die quickly if attacked, older trees die more slowly or recover.
    1 or 2% of ashes are tolerant to chalarose. This tolerance is genetically inherited.
    Some species are not sensitive to this illness.
    Another site ( no date) seems to consider that Fraxinus ornus is practically insensitive, F. Americana and F. Pennsylvanica less sensitive, F. Excelsior and F. Angustifolia ( the most commonly planted species) very sensitive… https://www.willaert.be/fr/la-solution-verte/plantes-incontournables/fraxinus

    So, if you want to plant one in your garden…

    I have always loved ash trees; as a child, I found them easy to identify because of their lovely black buds.

    Reply
  4. Chantelle Turner

    This is such an interesting article, I’m so happy I came across your blog! We have some ash trees in our estate in Dublin, and they seem happy and healthy. I wonder how ash leaves were meant to help with a snakebite! Fascinating!

    Reply
  5. Andrea Stephenson

    I’ve come to know ash trees from the park at the end of the street. I love their flowers, which I think look like heads of broccoli, and those dark buds. We lost a magnificent weeping ash recently – not from ash dieback I believe, but because part of the trunk had become hollow and they had to cut it down as it was in a children’s play area – very sad. A very interesting history.

    Reply

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