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Markstakes Common : June 2022

I came to Markstakes Common today looking for a noted ‘ancient’ ash which according to the map is hidden away in the north-west corner of the Common close to Furzeley Farm. It took me quite a bit of meandering around as you can see from my AllTrails to find it, not least because there are several other Ash in various stages of growth or decrepitude, with one or many stems in the same area. All no doubt from the original tree?

The 160 year old Ash in Markstakes Common, June 2022

This 3-stemmed ash had a girth of 302cm in 2010, which to my reckoning makes it around 160 years old. 

The Observer Book of Trees

I turned to the Observer’s Book of Trees (written in 1937, revised in the 1960s and reprinted – my copy, in 1972). The language is redolent of Wilfred Ewart who was writing before the First World War I and used references to the Classics. Here we read that the ash is the ‘Venus of the Woods’ for its ‘grace and strength of a goddess’. I don’t see this myself, not hemmed in my brambles, bracken and nettles and unable to view the tree from the cut lawn a few metres away over the boundary.

I have taken to giving the trees I visit regularly names based on their approximate year of germination. Growing since around 1850, and traditionally female, I was thinking I’d call this Ash ‘Victoria’ (the Queen rather than Beckham) – although Victoria covers a reign of several decades) or perhaps ‘Crystal’ as the Great Exhibition at Crystal Palace opened in 1851. For now ‘Crystal Ash’ it is.

The Observer reminds the reader that a tree’s character is very much down to its context, that hemmed in by a forest a tree is significantly different to one growing in an open meadow or hedgerow. Weather has an impact too, through its history, notably the significant storm of October 1987 and the more recent storm of some impact in February 2022 – a tree may lose a branch, be tipped off centre or be felled. We now have climate change to content with too: with hotter dry summers in southern England, and storms that are potentially more powerful with greater rainfall. Trees that were pollarded will have many stems if they have since been left. A tree has an impact on everything around it too, potentially starving out plants of light and nutrients or providing support to a bank with very deep roots. 

Ash, according to the Observer ‘was used where iron and steel have long since supplanted it’ (p.95)

As I am still at the start of my journey of recognising and understanding a multitude of trees I take note of its ‘leaflets’, which I read are ‘late to arrive and early to leave’. Initially I thought the ash tree leaves were distinct, only to find there are other quite different trees which might have fewer or more so called ‘leaflets’.  This is when the winter tree with is black leaf-buds is so handy. It also explains I’m sure why the Markstakes survey was done in January 2010, not in spring, summer or early autumn.

I am yet to see any of these trees in summer, having started my visits in autumn. I know I need to look out for distinct flowers and in the case of the Ash, the seeds or ‘keys’ with their singed ‘spinners’. 

I learned from the Observer that the Ash only produces seeds that germinate in its second year, matures at 40+ years, and has a natural span of 200 years. And a bit of history – they were coppiced to make oars, axes and hammer shafts. 


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