Sing Oak, and Ash, and Thorn good sirs,
All on a midsummer’s morn.
Surely we sing of no little thing
In Oak, and Ash, and Thorn.
My back garden – my world – is full of ash trees. And I fear for them, as the threat of ash dieback disease is growing in the UK. This is caused by a fungus called Chalara fraxinea, which leads to leaf loss and crown dieback – and usually tree death.
This disease was first identified in Poland in 1992 and spread quickly. It apparently entered Britain on plants imported from nurseries in Continental Europe, but its presence in some old trees near the East coast of England suggests it may have blown here across the Channel or been brought in on travellers’ shoes or cars.
For now I will just pray my trees stay safe. We are a long way from the coast, the winds are south-westerly here and I hope we are not near any infected plantations. I’m not even going to look for death in my trees – but if you are interested, you can read all about the disease on the Forestry Commission site.
In this post I will just celebrate the ash tree (Fraxinus excelsior) while I can. As the folk song at the top of this post suggests, oak, ash and thorn are considered to be the most native of trees in Southern Britain. You can hear a version of the song by the wonderful Peter Bellamy here. I do love Peter Bellamy’s voice, which I discovered through my folksy friend Christine when I was in my teens.
I assume the thorn of the trio is hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna) and the oak (Quercus robur) is England’s national tree. The mix of these three species varies from region to region but here in South Wales the ash seems commoner than the oak. Further west in Carmarthenshire you see far more oak and there is even a song called The Old Carmarthen Oak (hear a version by Ar Log here).
I hate to admit that I have always found the ash a rather “boring” tree! It doesn’t have the spectacular flowers of a chestnut. Ash flowers open before the leaves and are dark purple, with no petals.
The flowers are female or male, with the female ones a bit longer. Both can be on the same tree, but usually a tree has either one or the other – although it can switch from year to year.
…nor does it have the fancy leaf shape of an oak or sycamore…
…nor the acorns or whirlybird winged seeds of the oak or sycamore, just bunches of straight keys – this fruit type is known as a samara…
The ash doesn’t even have great autumn colour – usually just yellow and brown.
The bark? Well, it’s just grey, really. But then there are the eyes…
With those eyes, I can see why the ash is believed to be magical. In Celtic tree myth it is home to fairies (along with oak and thorn). In Ireland it is unlucky to fell an ash, lest your home should burn down. In Britain, the ash was regarded as a healing tree. A child with a broken bone or rickets would be passed through the split trunk of a young ash in a ritual cure. The split was sealed with clay and if the tree then grew straight, so did the limb. Alternatively a shrew could be sealed inside a hole in the ash trunk and when it died the cure was complete.
Although the trunk was split especially for that cure, many ash trees grow very close together anyway. I see a lot of “double” trunks, including the biggest ash in my garden, which I think is about 70 years old. We had the crown thinned out a decade ago to ease the weight on it.
Ash wood is said to have the power to ward off fairies, especially on the Isle of Man, and in Scotland the astringent sap was a medicine and a protection against witchcraft. Ash may be also be used in love divination. In some sayings in the North of England you put an ash leaf in your left shoe to see your love immediately and I like the old rhyme:
Even-ash, even-ash, I pluck thee,
This night my own true love to see,
Neither in his bed nor in the bare,
But in the clothes he does every day wear.
I think “even-ash” has no terminal leaflet to its twigs, but all the ash trees I have seen are “odd-ash” with that one at the end. Maybe “even-ash” is like a four-leaf clover?
The ash is usually last of our native trees to come into leaf in spring and the saying goes: “Oak before ash we’re in for a splash. Ash before oak, we’re in for a soak.” According to the Woodland Trust, global warming means ash now rarely comes into leaf before oak, as warmer springs give more of an advantage to the oak. Yet still it rains…
In Druid lore the ash is the world tree, which holds together this world (Abred), with the waters of the lower world (Annwn), the upper world (Gwynfyd) and infinity (Ceugant) beyond. The Celtic or Druidic magician Gwydion also bore an ash staff or wand.
In Norse mythology a great ash tree called Yggdrasil binds the world together. The name apparently means “Odin’s horse”, or even a gallows tree. There are many stories associated with it and it is full of various places and creatures. At the foot of the tree sit the three women known as Norns, who spin the destiny of men, like the Fates in Greek mythology.
While the basic “world tree” just links the above and below, Yggdrasil bound together not one world but nine, each a small pocket world. Perhaps like planets connected by wormholes.
According to one excellent source on Norse Mythology, the nine worlds are:
# Midgard, the world of humanity (compare Tolkien’s Middle Earth)
# Asgard, the world of the Aesir tribe of gods and goddesses
# Vanaheim, the world of the Vanir tribe of gods and goddesses
# Jotunheim, the world of the giants
# Niflheim, the primordial world of ice
# Muspelheim, the primordial world of fire
# Alfheim, the world of the elves
# Svartalfheim, the world of the dwarves
# Hel, the world of the eponymous goddess Hel and the dead
Four stags called Dain, Dvalin, Duneyr and Durathror move about in the branches of the ash, devouring the tree’s foliage and it has been suggested these represent the four winds.
Ash wood is strong and flexible and was used by the Anglo-Saxons for their spears and shield-handles. It has also been used for tool handles, furniture, sports equipment, walking sticks, tent pegs, oars, gates and wheel rims. It was even used to make the aircraft wings on the De Havilland Mosquito which flew in World War II.
One use that links usefulness and mythology is the Irish hurling stick or “hurley”. I have one of my own, which I bought as a souvenir on holiday in the west of Ireland. Mine is made by John Torpey – and Barack Obama has one, too…
As I say, hurling has deep mythological roots and the wonderful artist Jim Fitzpatrick depicted a hurling match in his Book of Conquests…
We have lost trees before. I still remember the Dutch elm disease of the early 1970s in Britain. Many landmark trees were felled. But they weren’t in my garden.
Ash trees bend in the wind. They often drop limbs but usually don’t fall. Having said that, we have seen two ash trees fall in gales in neighbouring gardens in the last 20 years. One big one fell in November 2001 and one smaller one in March 2008.
Let’s be of good cheer for now but end with another song – a sad song. In Welsh the tune is called Llwyn Onn. In translation that’s The Ash Grove, although I always think of it as The Lonely Ash Grove. You can hear the tune played on the harp here or Peter Pears singing it here. Below are the words sung by Peter Pears but there are many versions of the lyrics and you can see a very different one on the Scout Songs website here.
Down yonder green valley, where streamlets meander,
When twilight is fading I pensively rove
Or at the bright noontide in solitude wander,
Amid the dark shades of the lonely ash grove;
‘T was there, while the blackbird was joyfully singing,
I first met that my dear one, the joy of my heart!
Around us for gladness the bluebells were ringing,
Ah! then little thought I how soon we should part.
Still glows the bright sunshine o’er valley and mountain,
Still warbles the blackbird its note from the tree;
Still trembles the moonbeam on streamlet and fountain,
But what are the beauties of nature to me?
With sorrow, deep sorrow, my bosom is laden,
All day I go mourning in search of my love;
Ye echoes, oh, tell me, where is the sweet maiden?
“She sleeps, ‘neath the green turf down by the ash grove.”