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Folklore Friday - Ash trees

This week we are looking in more detail at the Ash tree.

In the Celtic Tree calendar it represents the 3rd lunar month of the year. Ash has been revered for centuries, at least in part for it incredible use as a firewood and timber. It only has a 35% greenwood content, compared with 60% in most other species, meaning it is light and can be seasoned quickly. The fine grey ash left behind has long been used as a source of potash for fertiliser.

The Latin species ‘Fraxinus’ name actually means ‘firelight’. At Yule, and now Christmas, it is traditional to burn an Ash log specially selected for the purpose. In some places ideally you want the remnants of the previous years to use as kindling. This allows continuity from one year to the next.

In Norse mythology Yggdrasil, the world tree, was an Ash (although there is debate on this as the Yew tree also has an excellent claim). Odin was said to have been pierced by a spear made of ash as he hung from the tree of life, trying to learn the secret of reading runes (something only the women tending the well of Urd could do). Yggdrasill was said to link the nine realms of existence.

In pre-Christian Ireland there were tales of five magical trees known as the ‘Chieftain Trees’. Three of these were Ash. The Tree of Usnech, The Tree of Dathi and the Tree of Tortu. They were cut down in in the 7th century AD as the country moved toward Christianity and erased symbols Paganism from the land.

Ash trees also feature in Greek mythology. The Ash is sacred to Poseidon the sea God, and is a charm against drowning. This could link to its popularity as a wood for oars to be made from. They are light and strong, an essential quality in rough seas.

The Goddess Nemesis, carries a branch of ash as a symbol of justice. At the marriage of Achilles parents, Peleus and Thetis, Peleus was given a spear made from ash polished by the Goddess Athena. This spear would allow the carrier entrance, and more importantly exit from, the Underworld.

Ash has always been valued for woodworking. For centuries it was the wood of choice for bows and spears, and many types of agricultural tools. It was also valued for wheel axles, carriages and wagons, gates. British car manufacturer Morgan Motors still uses Ash frames for its vehicles today.

Ash is one of the most easily identifiable trees in winter. Its pale ash grey bark and distinctive black buds standing out in the winter sunshine. In summer it has compound leaves with 3-6 leaflets arranged in opposite pairs, which are edible when young. It produces fruit, Ash keys, which can be pickled and eaten. It takes two years for these to ripen and fall from the tree ready for germination. Ash trees are dioecious, meaning that male and female flowers usually grow on different trees.

Occasionally one tree can grow both male and female flowers on different branches.

Recently a new fungus Hymenoscyphus fraxineus) has been causing Ash dieback. This causes trees to lose its leaves and the crown dies back, often resulting in their death. It is thought that tens of thousands of ash trees will die, potentially changing the UK landscape forever.

Do you know any stories about Ash trees?

Do you have any particularly special Ash trees near you?

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