Ash Leaves Fraxinus excelsior


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The ash, also known as the common or European ash to distinguish it from other species of ash, is one of Britain's most common native trees. Its distinctive greyish bark and ability to thrive in rocky limestone regions, plainly mark it out from Britain's other large trees. In Norse mythology, the tree of the world was an ash called Yggdrasil. Its roots reached down into hell while the crown of the tree touched heaven with its huge trunk connecting the two. Odin, the greatest of the gods, carved the first man from its wood.

While the ash is not quite large enough to reach from heaven to hell, it is one of Europe's largest native deciduous trees and can reach heights of up to 43m (140ft) with a girth of 6m (20ft). But size was not the only great wonder of Fraxinus excelsior in days gone by. It was believed that passing a sick child through the cleft of the tree would cure it. In addition burning logs of ash was thought to drive evil spirits from the room.

As well as these superstitious benefits the ash is a practical tree and has long been used for its timber. At one time it was coppiced, or cut down to a stump, every few years to reinvigorate new growth and ultimately produce new timber. The wood itself is tough and springy making it ideal as handles for tool such as axes and hammers, as well as for recreational uses - hockey sticks, tennis rackets and skis were all made of ash at one time.

The ash enjoys a long period of winter hibernation and doesn't tend to show its foliage until around May. Prior to then it is identifiable by its black leaf buds, which appear at the end of its branches. However in April smaller buds in the middle of the branches burst into purple and green bloom. The leaves of Fraxinus excelsior are around 30cm long and are made up of 9-11 lance-shaped and tapered leaflets. This formation is not found on any other of Britain's native trees so for the brief time that the leaves are on the tree it is easy to spot an ash. In the autumn, mature trees produce bunches of green winged seeds, commonly known as keys.

The Common Ash (Fraxinus excelsior, Linn.), a tall, handsome tree, common in Britain, is readily distinguished by its light-grey bark (smooth in younger trees, rough and scaly in older specimens) and by its large compound leaves, divided into four to eight pairs of lance-shaped leaflets, tipped by a single one, an arrangement which imparts a light feathery arrangement to the foliage. The leaflets have sharply-toothed margins and are about 3 inches long.

In April or May, according to season, and before the appearance of the leaves, the black flower-buds on the previous year's shoots expand into small dense clusters of a greenish white or purplish colour, some of the minute flowers having purple stamens, others pistil only, and some both, but all being devoid of petals and sepals, which, owing to the pollen being wind-borne, are not needed as protection, or as attraction to insect visitors.

After fertilization, the oblong ovary develops into a thick seed-chamber, with a long, strap-shaped wing which is known as an Ash-key (botanically: a samara). The bunches of 'keys' hang from the twigs in great clusters, at first green and then brown as the seeds ripen. They remain attached to the tree until the succeeding spring, when they are blown off and carried away by the wind to considerable distances from the parent tree. They germinate vigorously and grow in almost any soil.The Common Ash and the Privet are the only representatives in England of the Olive tribe: Oleaceae.There are about fifty species of the genus Fraxinus, and cultivation has produced and perpetuated a large number of distinct varieties, of which the Weeping Ash and the Curl-leaved Ash are the best known.

As a timber tree, the Ash is exceedingly valuable, not only on account of the quickness of its growth, but for the toughness and elasticity of its wood, in which quality it surpasses every European tree. The wood is heavy strong, stiff and hard and takes a high polish; it shrinks only moderately in seasoning and bends well when seasoned. It is the toughest and most elastic of our timbers (for which purpose it was used in olden days for spears and bows and is still used for otter-spears) and can be used for more purposes than the wood of other trees.

It is known that Ash timber is so elastic that a joist of it will bear more before it breaks than one of any other tree. It matures more rapidly than Oak and as sapling wood is valuable. Ash timber always fetches a good price, being next in value to Oak and surpassing it for some purposes, being in endless demand in railway and other waggon works for carriage building. From axe-handles and spade-trees to hop-poles, ladders and carts, Ash wood is probably in constant handling on every countryside - for agricultural plenishings it cannot be excelled. It makes the best of oars and the toughest of shafts for carriages. In its younger stages, when it is called Ground Ash, it is much used, as well as for hop-poles (for which it is extensively grown), for walking-sticks, hoops, hurdles and crates, and it matures its wood at so early an age that an Ash-pole 3 inches in diameter is as valuable and durable for any purpose to which it can be applied as the timber of the largest tree. Ash also makes excellent logs for burning, giving out no smoke, and the ashes of the wood afford very good potash.