So commanding, yet at the same time so light
and graceful, does a well-grown Ash appear, that
it has been called the “Venus of the Woods”.
This may appear to be rather too close an approach
to the “Lady of the Woods” (Birch),
but it well expresses the characteristics of the
two. They are both exceedingly graceful, but the
beauty of the Birch is that of the nymph, whilst
that of the Ash is the combined grace and strength
of the goddess.
It is in a meadow, or on the outskirts of a wood,
or in the hedgerow, where it is not hemmed in
by other trees, and where both soil and atmosphere
are moist and cool; where it has had elbow-room
to reach its long, graceful arms upwards and outwards,
and to cover them with the plumy circlets of long
leaves, that the Ash is able to do credit to the
name bestowed upon it.
Before the reign of iron and steel was so universal,
Ash timber was in demand for many uses where the
metals have now supplanted it.
It was then grown as a hedgerow tree far more
widely than is now the case. No doubt the noxious
drip and shade of the Ash have had much to do
with this abandonment of it, for few things can
live beneath it – a condition which quickly
exhausts and drains the soil, and so starves out
other plants. Although it thus drains the surface
soil, it is not dependent upon these upper layers
for food, for its much-branched roots extend very
deeply in the porous soils it prefers.
The Ash has a preference for the northern and
eastern sides of hills, where the atmosphere is
moist and cool, and the soil deep and porous,
for it loves free and not stagnant moisture for
its roots. A well-grown Ash attains a height of
eighty to one hundred feet.
The bark of both trunk and branches in pale grey,
and it is supposed that this is the origin of
the tree’s English name. On examining the
leafless branches in early spring, two things
will strike the observer – the blackness
of the big opposite leaf-buds, and the stoutness
of the twigs. This latter fact is due to the great
size of the leaves they will have to support,
which implies a considerable strain in wind or
What are generally regarded as the leaves of the
Ash are only leaflets, though they are equal in
size to the leaves of most of our trees. The largest
of the leaflets is about three inches in length,
and there are from four to seven – mostly
six – pairs, and an odd terminal one, to
each leaf. They are lance-shaped with toothed
edges. They appear rather late and are amongst
the earliest to depart.
The flowers of the Ash are very poor affairs,
for they have neither calyx nor corolla, though
their association in large clusters makes them
fairly conspicuous as they droop from the sides
of the branches in April or May. Stamens and pistils
are borne by the same or separate flowers, and
both kinds or one only may be found on the same
tree. The pistil is a greenish-yellow pear-shaped
body, and the stamens are very dark purple.
The flowers are succeeded by bunches of “keys”
– each one, when ripe, a narrow-oblong scale,
with a notch at one end and a seed lying within
at the other. The correct name of these “keys”
is samaras. Examining a bunch of these “keys”
one is struck by the fact that they all have a
little twist in the wing, which causes the “key”
to spin steadily on the wind and reach the earth
seed-end first. They are, therefore, sometimes
known as “spinners”. These are ripe
in October; but though the trees produce seed
nearly every year after the fortieth, the observer
may chance to look at a dozen Ashes before one
is discovered that bears a seed. The reason for
this is the fact that some trees have no female
blossoms. The seeds do not germinate until the
second spring after they are sown.
The Ash is not one of the long-lived trees, its
natural span being about two hundred years, but
its wood is regarded as best between the ages
of thirty and sixty years. So strong and elastic
is the Ash timber when taken from young trees,
that it is claimed it will bear a greater strain
than any other European timber of equal thickness.
Much of the Ash-wood obtained from Ash-coppice,
where only small diameters are needed, is used
for the fashioning or oars, axe and hammer shafts,
and similar purpose.
Useful also in many agricultural operations. Cattle
and horses are fond of Ash leaves, which were
formerly much used for fodder, but it is said
that to indulge cows in this food it is fatal
to the production of good butter from their milk.