Common ash – Fraxinus excelsior

If you go down to the woods today, you’re in for a big surprise… not animated teddy bears and their perfectly quartered sarnies – something far more magical, our native ash trees and they’re finally fully leaved! This keystone tree species is common throughout temperate Europe, third only to oak and birch in the UK but enjoys a particularly long period of winter hibernation. It’s tardy show of foliage and early shed in autumn means there’s only a limited time to see these trees at their best, but trust me, it is worth the wait! 

Image: Hannah Cole

Easy to do ash leaf rubbing: highlighting the stem, leaflets and terminal leaf

Description: The ash’s identifiable black leaf buds have now burst into characteristic and delicate ‘leaflets’. Instead of single leaves this species sports 3-6 pairs of lance-shaped leaflets (2) along each leaf stem (3) with a terminal leaf at the helm (1) –one of its most distinguishable features from other trees.

Image: Hannah Cole

Ash leaflets create a light and airy canopy above the woodland floor

Its loosely branched structure enables plenty of light to penetrate its tall-domed canopy allowing a wide variety of plants to thrive beneath. Much like our skin, the grey bark of this tree develops with age, smooth in youth but developing fissures as it matures. This broadleaf species has tasselled flowers that appear before the leaves emerge, they are mainly pollinated via wind and produce one-seeded winged fruit called a ‘key’. As autumn draws in these initially lush green keys ripen and turn brown. They are a cherished food source for wood mice and bullfinches in winter.

Image: Hannah Cole

Lichen on branch of young ash tree

Woodland Ecology: Common ash trees are important for the functioning and conservation of woodland ecosystems throughout much of Europe. Not only does their airy canopy allow ground flora such as wild garlic and dog mercury to grow, it’s alkaline bark supports over 220 Nationally Rare or Scarce lichens. These trees also provide shelter and food for birds like the warbler, flycatcher and great spotted woodpecker and several of Britain’s bat species, including the lesser and greater horseshoe bats, glean insects from the canopy layer of these trees at night. Don’t forget the smaller critters too; at least 60 of the rarest insects in Britain have an association with the tree, mostly beetles and flies – best take a magnifying lens for these!

Mythology: Ash is steeped in mythology and superstition, the species has long been credited with protective and healing properties. Commonly found growing beside holy wells, the wood was burnt to ward off evil spirits, and sick children used to be passed through ash clefts or given a teaspoon of sap to cure them. In Scandinavia ash is known as yggdrasil, the ‘Tree of the World’ and the ’Tree of Rebirth and Healing’.

Popular Uses: Ash timber is highly valued firewood, burning for a long time with intense heat. Historically, Anglo-Saxons used the wood to make tools and to this day, the springy tough properties ensure a continuity of its use for this purpose, as well as formore recent additions, including recreational objects and furniture.

Image: Andrej Kunca

Tree lesions caused by Chalara ash dieback

Threats: European ash is under threat from a fungus, Chalara fraxinea, that causes leaf loss, lesions and eventual death of the tree. The disease infects 60 – 90 per cent of the trees in its path and is particularly lethal in young individuals. It was first identified in Poland in 1992 but has spread to 21 other European countries, including the United Kingdom in 2012. This month Devon became the 17th county in the UK to have a confirmed case of this tree disease in the wider environment, i.e. not recent plantings. It is a serious threat to our native woodlands since ash provides about 5% of all woodland cover and supports a large number of other flora and fauna. A collaborative approach between government, woodland managers and biologists is currently underway to find a solution to this conservation challenge. For more information on Ash Dieback please click here.

Quick ash facts…

Name:

Common or European ash

UK abundance:

126 million (3rd most common species)

Distribution

Native to UK and most of Europe

Habitat:

Woodland, scrub, fields and hedgerows

Longevity:

300 years

Mature height:

Average 30 metres

Major threats:

Disease and deforestation

Uses:

Timber, tools and furnishing

Hannah Cole, Conservation Communications Intern

About Kay Haw

Assistant Conservation Adviser, Woodland Trust. Nature is my passion, especially woods and trees which are just amazing elements of life. One day (soon) I hope we humans learn to work in harmony with Mother Earth.
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12 Responses to Common ash – Fraxinus excelsior

  1. Another interesting fact about ash is that it is in the Oleaceae, olive family, and can be considered as the temperate olive tree. The leaves tend to drop at the first frost. On the chalk South Downs it tends to be the pioneer species rapidly colonising ungrazed pastures. Certainly one of my favorite trees.

  2. Pingback: Silver birch – Betula pendula | Woodland Matters

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  4. Pingback: Tree of the month: Ash | Science on the Land

  5. Mark Grubb says:

    I love this article……keep them coming! I’ve never been a particular fan of these trees, feeling they don’t add much to the residential garden, I’m in the “I like Ash trees” Club now!!

  6. Julie Taylor says:

    Our ash trees really are beautiful at the moment. We were particularly noticing how many young ash saplings there were growing alongside the Tyneside Metro on our journey today. The ash really is a significant part of our tree landscape – rural and urban. Since the discovery of Ash Dieback in the UK we have been taking particular notice of our local ash trees in the woods and fields where we regularly walk. All we can do now is be vigilant.

  7. 8arrows says:

    Interesting & informative post. Thank you

  8. Ash says:

    I love this tree, my namesake! Thank you for an informative & useful post.

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