Common ash, European ash or just “ash”, Fraxinus excelsior, is a common and widespread tree of northern Europe, including the UK and Ireland.
Ash trees make up a significant proportion of British hedgerows and are a key component of many mixed deciduous woodlands in the UK.
In the summer of 2013 a friend of mine sent me a link to an article in the online edition of the Independent newspaper entitled Save the ash tree? Half of us can’t even recognise an oak.
A YouGov poll conducted for the Woodland Trust was cited in the article; amidst all the publicity about Chalara ash die back, only 17% of those polled could recognise the leaf of common ash, Fraxinus excelsior.
And no, they weren’t required to know the scientific name, or have any detailed knowledge of the species, just to identify an ash leaf.
Drilling a little deeper into the numbers, only 10% of young people could identify an ash tree…
So how do we identify an ash tree? What are the key identifying features to look for? Which ways of recognising ash are easy to pass on to other people?
Identifying An Ash Tree
Whenever we are looking to identify a species of tree, in addition to the general character of the tree, we can look to particular features to help us:
- Other key identifying features
Common Ash, Fraxinus Excelsior
Common ash is tolerant of most soils except those which are excessively sandy. Ash does particularly well on chalky or rich soils. It is an abundant species and present in most wooded areas of the UK.
Ash trees will happily take a place as part of a hedge and ash forms a significant portion of hedgerows around the country. Here you’ll recognise its presence by its leaves, buds and characteristic upturned shoots (see below for more details).
Unfettered, ash grows to be one of the tallest trees in the forest, up to 30-40m (100 -130ft). This is suggested by the excelsior component of its scientific name, which means “higher” or “loftier”.
You’ll look up the beige-grey trunk of relatively modest diameter and be surprised how far up it goes.
Plus, unlike other large but more spreading British trees such as English Oak, the branches of ash have a character more of “reaching for the sky”.
Even the tip of each drooping shoot sweeps back upwards towards its end.
Ash is a deciduous tree, losing its leaves over winter. But some key identification features remain easily spotted year-round.
The Buds Of Ash, Fraxinus Excelsior
The buds of ash are one of its key identifying features. The buds are a sooty black, with one larger bud at the end of each shoot bracketed by an opposite pair of smaller buds a little further back. Shoots are a grey colour.
The combination of sooty black buds and upturned grey shoots is one of the easiest ways of positively identifying common ash in the winter, when it has no leaves.
The Leaves Of Ash, Fraxinus Excelsior
Ash has a compound leaf. That is, a leaf which is made up of multiple leaflets. These leaves occur in opposite pairs. With the exception of the terminal leaflet at the end of the leaf, these leaflets are arranged in opposite pairs.
There are typically 4-6 pairs, making 9-13 leaflets in total.
Each leaflet is irregularly serrated, rounded at the base and pointed at the end. The side leaflets have no stem and connect directly onto the mid-rib of the leaf, which is slightly downy underneath. Common ash leaves are a rich green on the top and lighter underneath.
Ash leaves are amongst the latest leaves to appear in the spring and the last to drop in the autumn. In the autumn, common ash leaves can briefly display a pale golden yellow before dropping from the tree.
The Bark Of Common Ash, Fraxinus Exclesior
The bark of young ash trees is smooth and a similar grey to the twigs. As the tree develops, the bark lightens to a beige-grey but stays relatively smooth compared to the boles of other similarly sized trees.
Eventually the bark develops some shallow fissures. The oldest of trees develop more pronounced fissures, and a darker grey colour, resembling the bark of mature English Oak.
In areas where there is clean air, lichens also readily grow on the bark of common ash, which may mask the colour of the bark beneath.
The Flowers And Seeds Of Common Ash, Fraxinus Excelsior
The flowers of ash are non-descript both to the eye and to the nose. The flowers are tiny, dark purple and appear – largely unnoticed – in clusters in the spring.
The seeds that form in clusters following the flowers are much more noticeable. They take the form of a winged ‘key’, bearing some resemblance to the seeds of sycamore, Acer pseudoplatanus. Common ash keys have only one wing, rather than the symmetrical wing-nut shape of sycamore.
Ash keys start off green but have turned brown by around the beginning of autumn. These brown clusters can stay on the trees long after the leaves have fallen and, if present, are an easily recognised identifying feature in the winter months.
The Value Of Ash
Ash is an extremely useful and valuable resource for the woodsman or woodswoman.
It is certainly worth putting in the effort to learn to recognise it easily as well as spreading the word so that others can also more readily identify and appreciate this majestic tree of our woodlands.
If you are fond of ash trees, please leave a comment below letting me and other people know why it’s a special tree for you.