May is here. Warmer days are definitely ahead and the greenery is starting to dress the skeletal branches we have been used to seeing during winter. The first tree I want to look at with you has allowed kings to keep and expand their kingdoms and has enormous medicinal benefits. If only it could cure itself. I am of course talking about the ash tree.
Ash; an Introduction
Our beautiful ash, (Fraxinus excelsior) is intrinsically woven into our national identity whether we know it or not. Without it we most certainly wouldn’t be speaking English and we would probably be considered a Southern annex of Scandinavia. More on that later.
The scientific name Fraxinus is from the Greek phraggo meaning to fence and excelsior means taller. So we have a tall tree that is so straight it is perfect for fencing. The timber is pale and incredibly tough. It can take strain from almost any angle and spring back to shape. Hockey sticks, pool cues, tool handles and wheels have all been made from ash. Even the great car manufacturer, Morgan, still use ash as a main component part in their cars due to its strength and flexibility.
The photo above was taken last week and shows the pinnate leaves just starting to show. As a good tip for identification ash is the only British native tree to have matte black buds. Pinnate means that the whole leaf is made up of leaflets that run up a central stalk. So one stalk equals one leaf as it were. The photo below from last year shows what I mean. That is one leaf in the centre of the picture.
Once the leaves come out it isn’t long before the ash’s seeds or “keys” appear. They are so called as they look like bunches of keys hanging down. They can be pickled but I personally don’t like them.
The ash can grow up to 40m tall and its bark gets more and more fissured with age. It starts off green and smooth, then at about 20 years the bark starts to split and then at about 50 the bark is fissured as shown below. At this stage ash is often confused with oak. The difference is that oak has square platelets as bark rather than the perpendicular lines. If you are still not sure look at the lower branches and the black buds will give you the positive ID.
Its roots go deep and are very strong but the ash is under attack. The tree has a weakness and that’s called Ash Dieback or Chalara. It basically prevents the tree from feeding by blocking the cells that transport water. Sometimes the tree can fight back but The Woodland Trust estimates that 80% of our ash trees will die. Visit their site for more information.
The stack of wood above is ash. It lost its fight with dieback and Storm Eunice. As you can see there is a pink hue to the wood. It is correct that ash will burn green or freshly cut. However, the fire won’t be warming however and it will sizzle and bubble. Those bubbles that come out of the end of the wood taste just like a strong coffee. Honestly.
In Norse mythology man was made from ash and woman was made from elm.
Yggdrasil or The World tree is said to be a gigantic ash tree holding all of The Norse realms safe in its great branches.
Great Yule logs are ash.
As a weather forecaster if ash leaves appear before oak then we’re in for a wet Summer.
The ash is said to guard against witchcraft and all sorts of hocus-pocus.
This is just a tiny amount of what myths and legends surround the ash. Needless to say it’s one of the good guys.
Whole chapters of books have been written about the ash and its history with us. Like I said in an earlier blog the ancient Sweet Track pavement in Somerset was made of ash as well as other coppiced timbers.
The main historical piece I want to look at though is not quite as old as The Sweet Track. We are going back to 878 when Guthrum and his Great North Army smashed King Alfed’s army into the heart of Somerset. Here he reorganised himself and with the help of the people of Somerset set about hit and run attacks on the Norse. By the Spring of 878 Alfred and the people of Somerset had rebuilt his army and with it the weapons needed to fight the Norse. Two of these weapons were the great axe and the spear, both vital in the dreadful art of Shieldwall Warfare. The axe was used to hack the shields of the enemy and the spear was then jabbed forward into the gap created in the shieldwall. The hafts of these weapons were made of ash, Somerset ash.
King Alfred went on to bash the Norse out of Wessex and he eventually won the war against Guthrum and his army. If it wasn’t for the ash we certainly would have had a very difficult time fighting the Norse with different timbers. None are quite so strong and flexible as ash.
Ash leaves are used as a tisane or tea to treat kidney infections and as a natural and gentle laxative.
Gout is treated in the same way.
So, Next Time You Are Out And About…
Keep an eye out for our mighty ash. Remember that horrifying number of 80%. Visit The Woodland trust website and see what they are asking us to do to help.
Our ash tree, so important as a base for stories, medicine, building, tools, food and so much more is under threat. It needs our help. Let’s see what we can do.
Until next time.