THE ASH TREE, FRAXINUS EXCELSIOR
The ash tree is the fourth most common tree in Britain and can sometimes be the most prevalent species in a wood. It grows across Europe from the Arctic Circle to Turkey and also grows in the Himalayas. It is Yggdrasil of Scandinavian mythology, the Tree of the World which has its roots in Hell and touches Heaven, and is also known as Tree of Rebirth and Healing. It was one of the three sacred trees of the Druids, along with the oak
and the hawthorn
. Despite the similarity of names, the ash tree is a relative of the olive
tree, but not of the Mountain ash or rowan
The fruit of the ash tree comes in the form of seeds which are encased and hang from the trees; these are called keys in the UK and children often call them aeroplanes because they fly well on a breeze. The bark is pale grey with lattice-like ridges and fissures. When cut it exudes a sap which the ancient Greeks called “meli” or honey as it is sweet, being made up of natural sugars. This was sold for medicinal purposes under the name of Manna until the start of the 20th century. (This species of ash tree is Fraxinus ornus and grows on mountains in Greece.) In times past in Britain, newborn babies were given a spoonful of this substance and after that they and the ash tree from which the sap came were thought to be related. The health of the ash tree and the human relative were thought to be identical, so the person whose tree it was would protect it so that no harm came to him or her.
The Anglo-Saxons, ancient Greeks and Romans used the ash for their spears (the Anglo-Saxon name for the tree, aesc
means spear) and handles of their shields, as it is shock resistant. For this reason it was used to make the chassis frame of classic Morgan cars in Britain, and during World War II wings of the De Haviland Mosquito plane were made from this wood. It has also been used to make walking sticks and is still used to make furniture. The Romans and Anglo-Saxons used the wood for tool handles and to make agricultural implements. It is used to make oars and sports equipment such as hockey sticks, and it is thought that the Druids used it to make their wands.
There have been many medicinal uses of the ash tree, and some involved using the whole tree; for example a child with rickets or a broken limb would be passed through a cloven tree, naked, in a ritual ceremony, to heal the affliction. Ash trees seem prone to lightning strikes, so trees can be found struck in two. They were thought to be good to plant outside houses to protect them from lightning. The tree can live for over a hundred years and although they usually have a girth of 5 to 6 feet, can be as big as 20 feet in diameter. They are usually between 30 and 50 feet tall, but sometimes grow to around 70 or 90 feet. Some have achieved a dizzying 135 feet. They kill most vegetation growing under them though, rather as does the banyan
tree among others.
William Gilpin (1724-1804) called the ash tree “the Venus of the Woods” and the English poet Spenser says the ash is “for nothing ill.” Indeed it was believed to have many medicinal properties, as the bark and bark of the root have astringent properties, and have been used in decoctions to help in fevers, to remove obstructions in the liver and spleen and for rheumatism and arthritis. The leaves (which according to tradition should be gathered in June and dried then powdered and kept in an air tight container to last for a year as will the seeds) are diuretic and diaphoretic, so promote sweating, and have been used for their purgative qualities and as a cure for jaundice. An infusion can be made from 1 ounce of the bark to 1 pint of boiling water, leave this to stand for 20 minutes and then strain, and use as a diuretic or to promote sweat. Distilled water made with the leaves was used for weight loss and given in cases of obesity, and “dropsy” and with white wine were thought to dissolve kidney stones.
Culpeper recommends that the seeds should be extracted from the seeds: “the kernels within the husks commonly called keys…prevaileth against stitches in the side.” The keys were said to relieve flatulence and John Evelyn (1620-1706) recommended them as a substitute for capers
salads and sauces if they were preserved in salt and vinegar: - “Ashen keys have the virtue of capers.”
Gerard says this of the ash: -
“The juice of the leaves or the leaves themselves being applied or taken with wine cure the bitings of vipers, as Dioscorides saith ‘The leaves of this tree are of so greate virtue against serpents so that they dare not so much as touch the morning and evening shadows of the tree, but shun them afar off as Pliny reports.’”
The Physicians of Myddfai had this recipe to cure deafness:
“Take a ram’s urine, and eel’s bile and the juice of ash, expressing the same into the ear and about the tooth. The actual cautery should be applied behind the ear and angle of the jaw, a nut being inserted therein. This is a good plan.”
That, of course is for you to decide!
Traditionally the ash tree’s bark, roots and leaves have been used to treat cancerous growths that are external, as pain killers, anti-inflammatory for gout, rheumatism and arthritis, and to get rid of intestinal worms.
Modern medical research has shown that the seed extract can be used in the future to help in the treatment of diabetes, as well as to regulate uric acid in the blood so it can be used in the treatment of gout. Fraxtin, a bioflavonoid
found in the tree has strong antioxidant properties, and a secoiridoid glycoside in the tree, Excelsioside, has exhibited free radical scavenging activities, so will combat the growth of cancer cells. It also contains quercetin, another bioflavonoid with antioxidant properties, and oleuropein which is also present in olive oil, which has anti-inflammatory properties, is cardio-protective and also has anti-cancer, antimicrobial anti-artherogenic, and antiviral qualities.
There is an old saying about the oak and the ash trees:
“Oak before Ash, in for a splash
Ash before Oak, in for a soak,”
This means that if the oak flowers before the ash tree it won’t be a wet summer, but if the ash flowers before the oak then it will be wet.
There are several songs about the ash tree, including the traditional Welsh song, The Ash Grove, (Llwyn Onnan) which is about a grieving lover roaming the ash grove where his love is buried. The first verse goes like this:
“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 shade of the lonely ash grove.”
Then there is the more cheerful, although still nostalgic traditional song,
“The Oak and the Ash and the Ivy
Oh, they flourished best at hame in the north countrie.”
It is also said that you will have prophetic or psychic dreams if you sleep with a handful of Ash leaves under your pillow.