Tree of the Week - Ash (Fraxinus excelsior)

Monday 19 September 2011

What it is

Ash is a resilient timber and is incredibly versatile. The colour of the wood ranges from creamy white through light brown, and the heartwood may be darker olive-brown. Ash timber is hard, tough and very hardwearing, with a coarse open grain. Because of its high flexibility, shock-resistance and resistance to splitting ash wood is the traditional material for bows, tool handles, especially for hammers and axes, tennis rackets and snooker cue sticks. In Northumberland, crab and lobster pots (traps) are still made from ash sticks. Due to its elasticity European ash was commonly used for walking sticks. Poles were cut from a coppice and the ends heated in steam. The wood could then be bent in a curved vise to form the handle of the walking stick.

The nemesis

The emerald ash borer (Agrilus planipennis) or (Agrilus marcopoli) is a shiny green beetle native to Asia. Since its accidental introduction into the United States, it has killed at least 25 million ash trees so far and threatens to kill most of the ash trees throughout North America

Bows and bats

As an 'elastic' hardwood, ash is quite the unique material, and has been extensively used for making bows, tool handles, and quality wooden baseball bats: although cedar is used too for the latter, it's usually ash you'll see out on home plate!

Fine work or kindling?

Although ash burns incredibly well with almost no smoke at all, don't bin it just yet! The wood is used extensively in veneering of office furniture and the like, and produces wonderful results at not too high a cost to your good self!


Ash is excellent for steam bending, ash also works incredibly well with both hand tools and machining, and you'll find it also saws, stains and finishes well.

Ash in mythology

In Norse mythology, the World Tree Yggdrasil is commonly held to be an ash tree, and the first man, Ask, was formed from an ash tree. Elsewhere in Europe, snakes were said to be repelled by ash leaves or a circle drawn by an ash branch. In Cheshire, it is said that ash could be used to cure warts or rickets.

According to Paul Kendall on the Trees for Life website in British folklore the ash was credited with a range of protective and healing properties, most frequently related to child health. Newborn babies were popularly given a teaspoon of ash sap. Poorly children, especially those suffering with rupture or weak limbs, would be passed naked through a cleft in an ash tree or ash sapling, to cure them. The cleft was often specifically made for the purpose and bound together again after the ceremony to heal over as the child also healed. Some folklore then suggested an intimate bond between the welfare and fate of the now related tree and person, with harm to the tree being reflected in the healed person's life, leading people to become understandably protective of 'their' ash tree.

Images, from top to bottom:

1. Ash foliage

2. The emerald ash borer has killed at least 25 million ash trees so far

3. Ash has been used extensively for making bows, tool handles, and quality wooden baseball bats

4. An ash kitchen worktop

5. The Yggdrasil, or world tree, was believed to be located at the centre of the universe