Ash is amongst the largest and most common of native British trees and there are probably about as many Ash trees in the UK as there are people. In Summer it can be recognised by the leaves, with each being divided into between seven and thirteen opposite leaflets (which are wider that those of Rowan) and in Autumn it has bunches of winged seeds, known as keys, that may last until the spring
It can easily be identified in winter by its buds, arranged in opposite pairs and shaped like a Bishop’s Mitre except for the buds at the end of shoots (often curving upwards) which are slightly more conical. The most important aid to identification given by the buds is that they are matt-black or very dark. Ash bark is smooth and grey or a pale grey-brown in younger trees and in older trees the bark becomes fissured into ridges.
The timber is creamy white shading to light brown with an occasionally darker heartwood, this wood being sold as ‘olive ash’ and the strong, springy wood is used to make hockey and hurley sticks, oars, wheels, handles, bowls, spoons pegs and many, many other things. Over the past few thousand years we have perhaps made more items from Ash than any other species of tree – Neolithic carpenters used it to make handles for their tools, a tradition carried on to this day by modern woodworkers.
It responds well to steaming and bending and so was used in bentwood furniture with local firm Ercol making some beautifully crafted chairs from the wood and it also provided the trim in the classic (and quintessentially British) Morris Traveller and Morgan sports cars are still built around an Ash frame.
Ash makes good firewood, having a naturally low moisture content and the twigs were traditionally fed to livestock in Scandinavia and Alpine Europe. The keys have been used to make pickles, the young shoots are edible and can be used in salads with the leaves being utilised to make tea. The sap can be ‘tapped’ to make Ash wine and feeding babies the (unfermented) sap was believed to make them stronger. It was thought that various concoctions made from leaves, keys and bark would cure snakebites and Ash has been used as a remedy for jaundice, kidney stones, earache and worms but be wary as it is also a traditional laxative…
Ash occurs widely in many world mythologies, perhaps the most well-known example being in Norse tradition as Yggdrasil, the World Tree that supports the Universe. This is a giant Ash whose trunk reaches up to the heavens with the boughs spreading out over the Earth – a stag, Eikþyrnir, feeds on the leaves with all the rivers of the world flowing from its antlers. One of its roots reaches down to the underworld (Niflheim), one to Jötunheim, land of the Giants and one to Asgard, the home of the Gods. Odin hung himself from the Tree, losing an eye to Ravens but gaining insight and wisdom. At Doomsday (Ragnarök) the Tree, although damaged, will be the source of new life.
One of the most interesting uses of Ash over the last few decades was from the sculptor David Nash. He created a remarkable work of land art deep in the Welsh countryside in the late 1970s, a ring of 22 Ash trees known as the Ash Dome. Nash has nurtured and tended this since its inception and it was intended as a work that would grow through the 21st Century. The Ash Dome is now dying, a victim of Dieback, and he is now worried it won’t outlive him. He is in his mid-seventies…
Ash Dieback, also known as Chalara is a devastating fungal disease. It was first recognised in Poland in 1992 and spread across Europe through the movement of tree stock and wind-dispersed spores. It arrived in England in 2012 from imported nursery stock – it is our 3rd most common tree and yet we import them…
It is thought that this could wipe out the vast majority of our Ash and given the experience of Dutch Elm Disease in the 1970s it is hard to be optimistic. There is however a glimmer of hope in that some Ash appears to have resistance to the disease and in other countries Chalara has damaged rather than killed some of the host trees. Dieback though is here and not going away; put simply it will wipe out millions of trees and dramatically change the way that our landscape looks
As well as Chalara and the usual problems created by our excessive deer population, Ash faces another potentially even more serious threat. The Emerald Ash Borer beetle, native to north-eastern Asia, is fatal to Ash trees which can die within a few years when infested. It has killed tens of millions of trees (some estimates reckon the number to be 100 million) in North America and is now spreading westwards from Russia and possibly Scandinavia. It isn’t here yet but if it does arrive (or when, given our poor level of biosecurity control and the potential profit to be made from importing products), it would be devastating and could make Ash trees locally extinct.
This illustrates the point made by the great ecologist, naturalist and landscape historian Oliver Rackham that British wildlife is most endangered by a globalisation which exposes trees to pathogens and parasites for which they are unprepared. We should, he argued, make use of the fact that we are an island to protect nature and to forestall diseases that have not yet got here.
We should “stop treating plants (and bees) as mere articles of trade, like cars or tins of paint, to be made and brought in industrial quantities from anywhere.”