The common ash in Britain bears the Latin name Fraxinus excelsior. It is a large familiar tree with a long silvery grey stem in lowland woods. On higher ground it becomes a shorter picturesque billowing hedgerow feature.The branches reach out widely and twist skywards. It is deciduous and comes into leaf late in spring.
The 20-30cm leaves are pinnate, which means they have a central stem and 9 to 13 toothed oval leaflets arranged in pairs with a single one at the tip. It sheds its muddy brown or dusty yellow coloured autumn foliage early. In winter clusters of prominent black velvety buds provide a unique clue to the trees identity. A good drawing of ash is available elsewhere online.
The flowers appear before the leaves, in April, in loose clusters near the tips of the twigs. They are green in colour, small and inconspicuous, possessing neither calyx nor corolla. The renowned dendrologist, the late Alan Mitchell, described the ash as a tree of ‘total sexual confusion’. It may be unisexual with individual trees bearing only male or female flowers; it may be bisexual in that individual trees bear both male and female flowers: individual branches on the same tree may bear only male or female flowers or both; individual branches may bear only male flowers one year and only female flowers during the following year. The flowers may be male, female or bisexual.
There are about 65 ash species world-wide. European ash occurs naturally from Britain and Ireland to the Caucasus and western Russia, and from the Mediterranean coast northwards to Scandinavia. Fraxinus is a genus of the Oleaceae family and is closely related to jasmine, lilac and the olive, a fact that is not immediately obvious at first sight.
Individual trees may live in excess of 400 years. Some are particularly large, the largest averaging about 45m. ( 149 ft) in height and 6m ( 20ft ) girth in UK.
Although hardy enough to survive anywhere, ash trees prefer valley bottoms and stream sides. They must have full light at all times and never be crowded out by other trees. They grow easily from seed but it must be collected and sown in early autumn while still green.
The timber is pliable and tough but not durable enough to use untreated outside. Forest trees 40cm in diameter (about 60 years old) produce optimum quality wood. Ash is the only British native timber that has never been replaced by an imported substitute. As an amenity tree it makes a bold landscape statement but spends much of its annual life cycle in the leafless state. Very little else will grow under ash so it is not encouraged as a park or garden tree.
The English name ash is derived from aesc the Anglo-Saxon name for a spear, once a common use for ‘ground ash’ as young slender saplings were called. The name Fraxinus was given to the tree by the Romans. It seems likely to have been derived from the Greek phrasso meaning a fence. Ash, living or dead, has always been used for marking field boundaries.
The old Latin name for the seeds (ash keys) was lingua lavis meaning bird’s tongue, which they closely resemble.
Ash coppices freely if felled before maturity.The quick grown poles are valued for such purposes as tool handles.
Ash wood is light brown in colour with little difference between sapwood and heartwood. The wood is too perishable for any use which brings it in contact with the ground. It is a first class firewood. As a wood ash is renowned for its toughness and pliability which taken together make it the best wood in the world for tool handles, sports goods such as hockey sticks, oars and where wood framing may be required for large vehicles or caravans. It is a good option for the interior species of windows or doors. If a wood is required to take shock or strain and absorb it smoothly without risk of fracture, ash is the best choice.
* Species information has been provided by www.woodworkingnetwork.com