Wednesday, 15 December 2010

Fraxinus excelsior

The Ash tree (Fraxinus excelsior) is one of the taller of the native trees of Britain.  It is deciduous tree that’s makes its habitats near riverbanks, meadows, valley woodlands and deciduous woodlands but will more often than not grow anywhere. It can develop an impressive crown when it grows in damp soil rich in minerals.  It is a member of the olive family and can grow up to 46m tall in exceptional circumstances, normally 20-35m.  The bark is smooth and pale grey on young trees, becoming thick and vertically fissured on old trees. The shoots are stout, greenish-grey, with jet black buds. The leaves are pinnate compound.  The leaves are often among the last to open in spring, and the first to fall in autumn if an early frost strikes.

The resilience and rapid growth made it an important resource for smallholders and farmers. It was probably the most versatile wood in the countryside with wide-ranging uses. Until World War II the trees were often coppiced on a ten year cycle to provide a sustainable source of timber for fuel and poles for building and woodworking.  Because of its high flexibility, shock-resistance and resistance to splitting Ash wood is the traditional material for bows, tool handles, especially for hammers and axes, tennis rackets and snooker cue sticks.  Ash is valuable as firewood because it burns well even when 'green' (freshly cut). 

It is in the Teutonic manuscript of Edda, written in the 13th century, that one can read of the mythological ash called Yggdrasil. Its roots were anchored in the abyss of the underworld, and watered by the streams of wisdom and faith. Its trunk was supported by the earth, while its crown touched the arc of heaven.  Scandinavian mythology holds that the ash was the 'tree of life'; it was believed to have healing powers in Britain, and was widely regarded as a source of magic and mystery. Unfortunately, the mysterious aura of the ash has declined in modern times; it is now commonly viewed as a 'weed tree' due to its rapid colonisation of new areas and fast growth.

The Ash has high conservation value. The airy canopy and short leaf stay allow a lot of sunlight through to the woodland floor and hence a rich and varied ground flora can grow. This also means plenty of food to allow a wide variety of insects and birds.

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