In recent years the Mountain Ash has come so
much into favour that it is now one of the commonest
of the trees planted in suburban gardens and fore-courts.
Its hardiness, its indifference to the character
of the soil, the fact that other plants will grow
beneath it, and the absence of need for pruning,
make it most suitable and popular for growth in
restricted areas. But the wood on the hillside
is the natural home of the Mountain Ash, and in
the Highlands of Scotland its vertical range extends
to 2,600 feet above sea level.
The Mountain Ash attains a height of from thirty
to fifty feet, and has a straight, clean bole,
clothed in smooth grey bark, scarred horizontally
as though it had been scored with a knife. All
the branches have an upward tendency, and the
shoots bear the long feathery leaves, whose division
into eleven to fifteen slender leaflets suggests
the Ash. It is not even remotely allied to Fraxinus
excelsior, and the similarity of leaf-division
is the only point of resemblance between them.
These leaflets have toothed edges, are paler on
the underside, and in a young condition the midrib
and nerves are hairy.
The creamy-white flowers are like little Hawthorn
blossoms, though only half the size, and they
appear in dense clusters in May or June.
The fruits are miniature apples, of the size of
holly berries, bright scarlet without and yellow
within. They ripen in September, and are then
a great attraction to thrushes, blackbirds, and
their kind, who rapidly strip the tree of them.
At first sight this may appear like frustrating
the tree’s object in producing fruit, but
the attractive flesh is a mere bait to induce
the birds to pass the seeds through their intestines,
and thus get them sown far and wide. By this method
the process of germination is considerably hastened,
whereas by hand-sowing the seeds lie in the earth
for eighteen months before shooting.
All the species of Sorbus produce their fruits
with this object, the larger more or less brownish
ones being intended to attract mammals, the smaller
and red-coloured to tempt birds. The seeds have
leathery jackets to protect them from the action
of the digestive fluids, and are further wrapped
in a parchment-like, bony, or wooden “core”,
with a similar object. In the case of the Mountain
Ash this is very like wood.
In the south of Britain the Mountain Ash is chiefly
grown as underwood and used as a nurse for oaks
and other timber trees, which soon outgrow and
kill it; so that in the woods it is seldom allowed
to grow into a fully developed tree, but, thanks
to the birds, it comes up on the common and the
hillside, and has a chance of producing its masses
of ruby fruit.
Its wood is tough and elastic, but, owing to the
smallness of its girth, it does not produce timber
of any size.
Among the numerous names of the Mountain Ash are
Quickbeam, White Ash (from the colour of the flowers),
Witch-wood, and Witchen. Quickbeam is in allusion
to the constant movement of the foliage, quick
being the Anglo-Saxon cwic, alive. Witch-wood
and Witchen are also forms of cwic.