Ash Tree: A Sturdy Lime Loving Tree
Strong yet graceful, the common ash tree grows easily throughout the British Isles. It is particularly associated with limestone areas (below), where it flourishes in steep hillside woods, managing to take root in rocky, inhospitable crevices.
The ash is one of our commonest native trees. Although it does not achieve the grandeur of oak nor the majesty of beech, it is nevertheless a handsome species, noted for its graceful foliage and sturdy trunk clad with pale grey bark that becomes deeply furrowed with age.
The crown is rather loosely branched and the foliage relatively light so that the tree does not cast deep shade and a wide variety of plants grow beneath it. In winter, without the benefit of its leaves, the ash reveals its uneven branching and stout twigs which combine to produce a rather shapeless silhouette.
The ash is native to Britain and most of Europe. It is widespread throughout the country in oak woods, copses, in hedgerows and along river banks. Woods dominated by ash tend to occur on steep limestone hillsides. Pure ash woods are often associated with outcrops of carboniferous limestone and fine examples occur in such widely dispersed parts of the country as the Mendip Hills, the Pennines and Cumbria.
But by far the most interesting ash woods grow on limestone pavements, the largest areas of which are in the north of England around Morccambe Bay. Great Asby. Ingleborough and Malham. These pavements are platforms of rock which were carved and smoothed by the scouring action of glaciers during the last Ice Age over 10,000 years ago.
Huge flat blocks of limestone clints are separated from each other by crevices called grikes which are 2-4m (6-13ft) deep and up to 50cm (1-1/2ft) wide. Ash is the dominant tree and forms open woods which allow a profusion of shrubs, such as hazel, blackthorn and bird cherry, and wild, such as red campions, wood anemones and of the valley, to mention just a few, to grow in the light underneath. In addition, rather like a natural rock garden, a tremendous variety of ferns and mosses thrive in the damp shade of the grikes.
Recognising the ash is easy because the twigs in winter and the foliage in summer are so distinctive. The smooth pale grey twigs bear pairs of opposite buds along their length and are each tipped with a large, robust black bud. The buds owe their velvety texture and appearance to a coat of minute black hairs covering the bud scales.
The leaves are compound; 3-6 pairs of toothed lance-shaped leaflets are arranged along the leafstalk which is itself tipped with a single terminal leaflet. The form of ash leaves is unlike any other British wild tree except for the totally unrelated mountain ash or rowan (Sorbus aucuparid). But because the species are different in every other respect, there is little danger of the two being confused.
Early in April the axillary buds break into flower, well before the emergence of the leaves. The purplish-green flowers that hang like tassels from the bare twins are pollinated by the wind.
Generally ash flowers are bisexual, ie the male and female parts are produced together. The female organs are called pistils; the male organs are the pollen-producing stamens. However it is not unusual to find ash trees with flowers that are all male or all female. And what’s more, the ash tree can undergo a sex change from year to year. A male tree last year may be female this year, and perhaps bisexual the next.
The ash is one of the latest trees to burst into leaf and is usually not fully covered until May. Generally the ash ‘leafs out’ later than the oak, but not always. The timing is the subject of a country rhyme which claims to forecast the weather we can expect in the coming months:
Oak before ash . . . we’re in for a splash; Ash before oak . . . we’re in for a soak! The ash loses its leaves quite early in autumn so it has a short cycle of summer growth. The leaves are highly sensitive to cold and are frequently shed at the first hint of frost. Usually the leaflets fall before the leaf stalk. Occasionally the leaves turn pale yellow. But more often they fall while still green, making the tree one of the least spectacular in the autumn.
Following fertilisation of the flowers. The fruits of the ash (samaras) hang in clusters popularly known as keys, which are green at first and ripen brown during autumn. Each key consists of a slightly twisted vane attached to a single seed. The twist helps to give the winged seed a spinning motion, keeping it airborne for as long as possible while it is transported. In autumn gales ash keys may be blown several hundred metres.
Bunches of ash keys last well into the winter and are thus important for birds as food becomes scarce. The amount of seed produced varies from year to year. A heavy ash seed crop may please orchard owners. It has recently been suggested that bullfinches. Chief enemies of juicy young buds on fruit trees, are less of a pest when there are plenty of ash seeds available nearby.
Ash has always been a highly prized firewood because it burns ‘green’, that is when it has been freshly cut. This makes it an excellent fuel, as was celebrated by Walter de la Mare. Of all the trees in England, her sweet three corners in, Only the Ash, the bonnie Ash, Burns fierce while it is green.
A great advantage of ash timber is that it is so tough and elastic that it can withstand stress, strain and sharp knocks. It is easily the best native timber for any sort of long handle which has to resist sudden shock. Axes, picks. Mallets and various garden tools invariably have ash handles. Similarly it is used for sports equipment such as oars, hockey sticks and parallel bars.
Ash was widely planted in hedgerows because the wood was useful on farms, and in woodland ash trees used to be coppiced to provide poles. But ash wood is no good forbecause it quickly rots in the ground. Ash poles are still specially grown in nurseries to make walking sticks. The young ash plants are cut back and replanted on a slant. Subsequent regrowth from the stump is vertical and so a stick with a bent handle is produced. In the past ash was used for weapons, especially for the shafts of spears and lances. The Anglo-Saxon word for ash is aese, which was also used to mean spear.
The ash played an important role in ancient Nordic mythology from Scandinavia where it was regarded as the ‘tree of life’. From a huge ash tree, whose crown reached up to heaven and whose roots penetrated hell, the gods ruled the world. To watch over earthly affairs, they were helped by an eagle perching on the topmost branches. In turn the eagle was assisted by a squirrel, which spent its time scampering up and down the tree and reporting on what was happening below.