European Ash TreeThe European Ash (F. excelsior) is a large timber tree, native also to western Asia. Evelyn ranked its wood next to oak in universal usefulness. Scholars wrote on its inner bark before paper was invented.
Lances and spears, shields, pikes and bows of it armed the soldier in days of old. Implements of all sorts were made of ash from the infancy of agriculture and mechanics. "The husbandman's tree," it was called, for "ploughs, axletrees, wheel-rings, harrows, balls; oars, blocks for pulleys, tenons and mortises, poles, spars, handles and stocks for tools, spade trees, carts, ladders.
In short so good and profitable is this tree that every prudent Lord of a Manor should employ one acre of ground with Ash to every twenty acres of other land, since in as many years it would be more worth than the land itself."
William Cobbett gives the ash a good character. He commends the keys for fattening hogs. "The seeds of ash are very full of oil, and a pig that is put to his shifts will pick the seeds very nicely out from the husks." He says further: "The ash will grow anywhere." "It is the hardiest of our large trees." `On the coasts the trees all, even the firs, lean from the sea breeze, except the ash. It stands upright, as if in a warm, wooded dell.
We have no tree that attains greater height or bears pruning better, none that equals the ash in beauty of leaf or usefulness of timber. It is ready for the wheelwright at twenty years or less."
Young ash saplings are cut when only five or six years old and used in making crates for chinaware. When steamed the wood may be bent to any shape, which makes it valuable for hoops. An ash tree 3 inches in diameter is as valuable for spade and fork handles as it will ever be. Walking sticks and whip handles use up still smaller stuff, the very tough second growth, or "stooled" shoots.
The ash is a tree of great reputation in Europe, aside from its lumber value. It is the World Tree-Igdrasil-of the Norse mythology, out of which sprung the race of men. It dominated the whole universe. Did not its roots penetrating the earth reach even to the cold and darkness of the Under World? Its giant top supported the Heavens.
The Fount of Wisdom and Knowledge was at its base-so were the abodes of the Gods and the Giants. The Fates, also, dwelt there, who held in their hands the destinies of men. There were the Nornies "continually watering the roots of this world-shadowing tree with honey-dew." Hesiod in the South declares that a race of brazen men sprung from the ash tree. In those days, when the world was new, men sprang from oak trees, or from the soil, or the rifted rock, according to the legends and fables handed down to us.
Superstitious parents in rural England used to pass a poor little babe suffering from rupture through the cleft stem of a growing ash. Twice the stem must be sprung apart, and the child passed through.
The trunk was then tightly bound, and when its halves were firmly knit, they believed that the child would also be whole. An oil distilled from ash chips was counted a sovereign remedy for many ailments, especially earache. John Gerarde writes: "It is excellent to recover the hearing, some drops of it being distilled warm into the ears"
The kernels of ash seeds were credited with having medicinal value. English apothecaries of Evelyn's time had stock of "Lingua avis" on their shelves, calling them this because they were "like almost to divers birds' tongues." Gerarde, citing the authority of Pliny, says: "Serpents dare not so much as touch the morning and evening shadows of the tree, but shun them afar off. Being penned with boughes laid round about [they] will sooner go into the fire than come near the boughes of the ash." And he adds: " It is a wonderful courtesie in nature that the ash should floure before the Serpents appeare, and not cast his leaves before they be gon again."
As for lightning, the ash is said to attract it. Various warnings are current:
"Beware the oak, it draws the stroke;
Avoid the ash, it courts the flash;
Creep under the thorn-it will save you from harm."
The unfortunate rustic, caught in a shower, probably knows that beech is the safest tree to stand under, for experience and tradition both hold that "a beech is never struck by lightning." The early settlers had this saying from the Indians, and proved its truth. A quaint recipe from Gerarde may interest some of my readers, though certain makers of nostrums may frown upon me for quoting it. "Three or four leaves of the ash taken in wine each morning doe make those lean that are fat."
Parkinson indorses this as "a singular good medicine-with fasting a small quantity-for those already fat or tending thereunto, to abate their greatnesse, and cause them to be lancke and gaunt." Who disbelieves in this will do well to remember that Gerarde was no mean authority in his day, and Parkinson-was he not the King's own Apothecarye? I make no doubt, however, that the conclusion will be drawn by many that the "fasting a small quantity" was the effective part of the treatment prescribed.
"Bee-sucken ash," black at the heart, was counted tougher and harder than the wood of sound trees, and especially desirable for making mallets. Bees were credited (or blamed) with a cankered condition produced by a tree-destroying fungus.
Finally, ash wood makes excellent fuel, and its ashes, rich in potash, make an excellent fertiliser. Certainly the genus as a whole deserves the good word of the poet Spenser, who enumerating trees and their special uses, closes the list with- "the ash, for nothing ill."