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So what has the ash

tree ever done for us? by Mark Hinsley

The ash may be not be thought of as highly as oak or beech but we should be really concerned about the threat to this ancient native tree, says Mark Hinsley

With our current population of ash trees under threat from disease, I thought it timely to look at the ash and its place in our culture and history.

Fraxinus excelsior - the ash, is a member of the Olive family (Oleaceae). It is a native of the British Isles, Europe and Asia Minor and is most readily recognisable for its smooth grey bark and conical black buds.

Known to the Ancient Greeks as ‘melea’ and to the Romans as Fraxinus, the ash was used in the manufacture of weapons and agricultural implements. Spear shafts and third rate long bows were made of ash.

According to Norse legend, the name ash was derived from the word aska, meaning man, for it was from a twig of this tree that Odin, Hoenir and Lothur fashioned the first man. Yggdrasil, the World Tree of the Norse religion, is also described as being a huge ash. In the first century AD, Dioscorides, the physician, recommended that the juice of the ash was an antidote against the bite of the serpent.

In 1825 William Cobbett wrote: "it gives us boards; materials for making implements for husbandry; and contributes towards the making of tools of almost all sorts. We could not well have a wagon, a cart, a coach or a wheelbarrow, a plough, a harrow, a spade, an axe or a hammer, if we had no Ash." Only the ready availability of imported hickory in modern times has reduced the importance of the ash for handles and shafts that need to be durable with a bit of spring in them.

Gilbert White in his The Natural History of Selborne published in 1788 recorded a bizarre healing process attributed to the ash: ‘In a farmyard near the middle of this village stands to this day a row of pollard-ashes, which, by the seams and long cicatrices down their sides, manifestly show that in former times they have been cleft asunder. These trees, when young and flexible, were severed and held open by wedges, while diseased children, stripped naked, were pushed through the apertures under a persuasion that by such a process the poor babes would be cured of their infirmity. As soon as the operation was over the tree in the suffering part was plastered with loam and carefully swathed up. If the parts coalesced and soldered together, as usually fell out, where the feat was performed with any adroitness at all, the party was cured. But where the cleft continued to gape the operation, it was supposed, would prove ineffectual.’

Perhaps one of the strangest beliefs was in the ‘shrew- ash’, which was usually an ancient pollarded tree whose branchlets and twigs had the power of curing horses, cattle and sheep of the pains caused by a shrew-mouse running over them - rheumatism to us! A shrew-ash was made by imprisoning a live shrew in a hole made in an ash tree and plugging it with incantations now forgotten. The ash tree retained its healing virtue as long as it lived and every village and farmyard possessed such a tree in order to be ready for an emergency.

Ash was often managed as coppice for poles and firewood and some coppice stools thousands of years old exist in our countryside. Amongst our native trees these days the ash is something of a poor relative, lacking the public affection of the oak or the grandeur of the beech, yet it is an important part of our heritage and its plight is of real concern for us all.

Mark Hinsley, of Arboricultural Consultants Ltd.

Country Gardener 25

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