The ash (esh, esk, ask, axe) prefers damp and calcareous (chalky) soils which it can colonise
rapidly. It is a fast-growing tree and competes with birch in colonising gaps in the woodland canopy.
Unlike the birch, however, the ash reaches large dimensions, up to about 45 m in height with a girth
comparable to many oaks. The young branches of ash are supple and its wood can be used as a
substitute for yew in making bows. Ash was also widely used in ancient times for spears. The buds of
ash are sooty-black the male flowers form purple masses. The leaves are divided into leaflets. Ash is
normally not as long-lived as oak, living for about 200 years, but occasional coppiced trees may
perhaps exceed 1000 years. Ash makes good firewood, burning even when green.
In Norse philosophy the ash was a symbol of the cosmic Tree of Life, Yggdrasil. The roots of
Yggdrasil reached down to the netherworld and are watered by three wells, including the Well of Urd
(the spring of destiny) and the well of wisdom or knowledge. It connects the underworld to the
heavens above and the realm of the light elves and supports all manner of living things in Midgard
(Middle Earth) which feed upon it. Odin, god of knowledge and wisdom and 'Lord of Men', hung
himself from its branches for nine days and nine nights to obtain the secret of the runes. He wounded
himself was his own spear has he hung and came back to life to collect the runes which had fallen.
Odin was also known as Woden and is linked to Wednesday (Woden's Day). According to Norse and
certain Greek myths, the creator gods fashioned man from a piece of ash wood and woman from a
piece of elm. There is some evidence, however, that rowan, the mountain ash, was originally the
Tree of Life. The concept of the tree of life is an ancient concept that appears in the roots of most
mythological or belief systems, perhaps stemming from a form of primitive tree worship or tree
The ash trees below are growing on chalky soil and seem to match the landscape - slowly crumbling
into whitish fragments that match the ancient ruins of the abbey nearby. They seem to be crumbling
to ash where they stand!
Ash trees prefer moist, well-drained, fertile and calcareous soils and grow well on limestone-rich and
chalky soils (pH above 4.2) like the tree above. They usually form mixed woodlands in which oak or
beech dominate, but are often dominant on calcareous soils. They prefer temperate climes, fairing
badly in extreme winters and summers, and the roots will grow at a temperature range of 4 to 29
degrees C. Ash trees are good colonisers of calcareous grassland. Ash is a good coloniser of storm
gaps and replaced many gaps left by dead elms in hedgerows.
Ash trees are monopodial (having a stem produced from a single leading axial shoot as in pine
trees) though frost-damage may cause the stem to fork. Coppicing and pollarding also induce
dormant epicormic buds (dormant buds beneath the bark of branches and stems) to activate,
producing many leading shoots. The wood is ring-porous.
The ash is a deciduous tree growing up to 45 metres, but usually 12-18 metres in height. In very
exposed places it may grow as a shrub. The bark is grey and smooth when young, but furrowed in old
age. The characteristic black buds are 5-10 mm long and the characteristic compound leaves are 30
cm long and divided into 13 stalk-less leaflets, each about 7 cm long. Both leaflets and leaves are
oppositely arranged. The leaflets have a central channel for water and hairs in this channel absorb
The purplish flowers lack petals and are arranged in panicles and open in April/May before the leaves
and are wind-pollinated. The genders are complex - some individual ash trees are male, some female,
but many are varying mixtures. The flowers may be hermaphrodite and consist of two anthers and one
ovary; male flowers have an ovary which fails to develop and aborts and female flowers have abortive
anthers. Reproduction is almost exclusively sexual and the fruit is a samara, or dry-winged fruit about 3
cm long and usually enclosing one seed. The first fruit develop in July, but the first viable fruit are
produced in September and through to the following spring. The seeds overwinter for two winters on
average before germinating, but may remain viable in the soil for up to 6 years. Seedlings are
shade-tolerant, though may be out-competed by grass, and can tolerate shade for several years,
rapidly springing up should an opening appear in the canopy. Ash is protandrous - the male parts
maturing before the female parts, which favours cross-pollination. About 100 000 seeds are produced
every second year.
A young ash may grow 2 metres in a single season. Ash trees usually live for several hundred years
and although not generally as long-lived as oak trees, an ash stool 18 feet and 6 inches in diameter in
Bradfield Woods, Suffolk, is over 1000 years old.
Fraxinus excelsior is a large tree which is generally dioecious - with separate male and female
trees. However, as explained below, things are not quite so simple!
The basic floral formula (for an hermaphroditic flower) is:
K(4) C(4) A 2 G(2)
The ovary is superior. Each flower has 4 fused sepals and 4 fused petals and 2 anthers and/or two