Written by Heather Elvidge
The countryside without ash trees is scarcely conceivable. Ash is our third most common tree after oak and birch, and it supports a variety of wildlife. But it looks as though we will have to come to terms with the unthinkable.
The fungus that causes ash dieback, Chalara fraxinea, has been confirmed in mature trees, which means that it’s probably been in the country for at least two years. As there is no cure at present, the airborne spread of the fungus spores will probably continue, leading to leaf loss and the eventual death of most of our 80 million ash trees.
The only hope is that some ashes will be resistant to the disease, or that a resistant strain can be developed.
Ash is such a common tree because it seeds freely, and also because it was so useful in the past. It’s a graceful tree with feathery foliage that lets plenty of light through.
Ash trees are happy in hedgerows or city parks, but also dominate woodland in the Derbyshire Dales and on the Yorkshire Wolds. We can only hope that David Hockney’s acclaimed paintings of Woldgate Woods do not prove to be the trees’ memorial.
Numerous place names containing ash or ask, such as Askrigg inYorkshire or Long Ashton in Somerset, testify to the tree’s ancient presence. Ash’s strong, shock-absorbent timber was used for fencing, ladders, shepherd’s crooks, sledges, oars and the handles of countless axes and hammers. To produce straight poles the trees were regularly coppiced, a practice that encourages them to live beyond their usual 180-odd years.
Ash timber was the choice for wagon axles and coach building, so when horseless carriages came along it made frames for them, too. The iconic MGA has an ash chassis, as does the Morgan sports car.
Ash was credited with powers of healing and protection, so its uses were many and varied.
In Scotland it was traditional for a newborn to be given ash sap as its first food; one end of an ash twig was held in the fire, and as the sap bubbled from the other end it was collected on a spoon.
In cures for childhood illnesses a split was made in an ash sapling, and the child passed through the gap. The ash was then bound up and as it healed, so would the patient.
Perhaps the most famous ash of all is the World Tree, Yggdrasil. In Norse myth, this great ash unites the nether world, the world of men, and the realm of the gods. It is the fount of life and the source of occult knowledge.
Yggdrasil survives the destruction of the gods when the world is plunged into icy darkness, and out of the tree comes the couple that will re-populate the earth.
In his poem A Tree Song, Rudyard Kipling links three trees loaded with old beliefs:
Of all the trees that grow so fair
Old England to adorn,
Greater are none beneath the Sun
Than Oak and Ash and Thorn.