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[An Archaeologist’s Guide to British Species] #9: Ash

February 4, 2021
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In 2021, I am blogging an A-Z compendium of human interactions with species in the British landscape. A list of references for information used in this series can be found here. 

Ash keys on a branch
Ash keys. Image by Pleple2000. CC BY-SA 3.0

Ash

Fraxinus excelsior L.

A deciduous tree growing up to 30m with greyish bark and long leaves consisting of around nine oval leaflets arranged in opposite pairs. It is a hardy tree and can survive on exposed hills. It grows on calcareous and neutral soils. Ash was commonly planted in hedgerows in the English Midlands during the eighteenth century.

Ash grown for timber must be fast-grown, as slow-grown ash has large pores in its annual rings and produces brittle wood. Ash timber is white, and sometimes pale brown at its centre. It has a remarkably straight grain, is heavy and tough yet supple, and does not splinter when struck – as such it is ideal for the handles of tools and implements. In the Iliad, Homer tells us that Achilles’s spear was made of ash. A naturally mummified man who died around 3400 and 3100BC found in the Tyrolean Alps in 1991 close to the border between Austria and Italy, known affectionately as Ötzi, carried a flint dagger with a handle made of ash. It also makes good oars, skis, cart frames and shafts, wheel rims, barrel-hoops and furniture. Historically, it has been coppiced to produce tough and springy wood. 

Ash keys, the single winged seeds which appear in late summer, can be pickled in vinegar and salt, while in Central Europe, ash leaves have been used in place of hops in beer. Ash sap can be tapped to make ash wine. Ash wood burns well, even when green, and as a relatively dense wood is a fairly long lasting source of heat. Ash bast is easily removed from the tree in long strips, and ash bark can be used in the drenching stage of leather tanning as an acidic solution to aid in the initial cleaning of the hide before tanning proper. 

Ash leaves are also a source of fodder for livestock. Ash leaves for this purpose would be collected during the summer and then bundled and dried on dried on a trellis to be stored ready for winter. According to Peter Reynold’s excellent Shire book Ancient Farming, goats and older breeds of sheep such as Soays prefer leaf fodder to hay.

Ash trees were honoured in Norse mythology, and Norse weapon handles and arrows are often ash. The Norse word for ash, ask, occurs in place-names such as Askrigg (ash ridge) in North Yorkshire. Ronald Hutton notes that there are more superstitions about ash trees recorded in British folklore than any other species. 

Ash wood is one of the tree species in Britain whose wood is ring porous, that is to say that the early wood growth has recognisably larger pores than growth later in the year. This feature is visible in a cross section (termed the transverse section) of the wood under a microscope from about x20 magnification. Because ash grows slowly, the latewood vessels can be especially close to the earlywood vessels, and may be overlooked.

Ash seeds. Small squares are 1mm. Photo by Matt Law. CC BY-SA

Ash seeds on the Digital Plant Atlas

Ash leaf buds on WikiArc

Ash wood on Microscopic Wood Anatomy

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