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Quick facts

Common names: ash, common ash, European ash

Scientific name: Fraxinus excelsior

Family: Oleaceae

Origin: native

When fully grown, ash trees can reach a height of 35m. Tall and graceful, they often grow together, forming a domed canopy. The bark is pale brown to grey and fissures as the tree ages. The tree is easily identified in winter by its smooth twigs that have distinctive black, velvety leaf buds arranged opposite each other.

Look out for: the black buds and clusters of seeds which are key features.

Identified in winter by: its distinctive black buds and flattened twigs.

What does ash look like?

ash leaves close-up

Credit: Ben Lee / WTML

Leaves 

Pinnately compound, typically comprising 3–6 opposite pairs of light green, oval leaflets with tips up to 40cm long. There is an additional singular 'terminal' leaflet at the end. The leaves can move in the direction of sunlight, and sometimes the whole crown of the tree may lean in the direction of the sun. Another characteristic of ash leaves is that they fall when they are still green.

close-up of ash tree young shoots budding blossom

Credit: Frank Teigler Hippocampus Bildarchiv

Flowers

Ash is dioecious, meaning that male and female flowers typically grow on different trees, although a single tree can also have male and female flowers on different branches. Both male and female flowers are purple and appear before the leaves in spring, growing in spiked clusters at the tips of twigs.

ash fruit seeds

Credit: Ben Lee / WTML

Fruits

Once the female flowers have been pollinated by wind, they develop into conspicuous winged fruits, or 'keys', in late summer and autumn. They fall from the tree in winter and early spring, and are dispersed by birds and mammals.

Not to be confused with:

Rowan (Sorbus aucuparia) and elder (Sambucus nigra). Elder has fewer leaflets and those of the rowan are serrated.

An ash tree through the seasons

ash trees with blue sky

Credit: Ken Leslie / WTML

Where to find ash

Ash thrives best in fertile, deep and well-drained soil in cool atmospheres. It is native to Europe, Asia Minor and Africa and is also found from the Arctic Circle to Turkey. It is the third most common tree in Britain.

Did you know?

Ash trees are in the olive family (Oleaceae) and produce oil that is chemically similar to olive oil.

Value to wildlife

Ash trees make the perfect habitat for a number of different species of wildlife. The airy canopy and early leaf fall allow sunlight to reach the woodland floor, providing optimum conditions for wild flowers such as dog violet, wild garlic and dog’s mercury. In turn, these support a range of insects such as the rare and threatened high brown fritillary butterfly.

Bullfinches eat the seeds and woodpeckers, owls, redstarts and nuthatches use the trees for nesting. Because the trees are so long lived, they support deadwood specialists such as the lesser stag beetle. Ash is regularly accompanied by a hazel understorey, providing the ideal conditions for dormice.

Ash bark is often covered with lichens and mosses. The leaves are an important food plant for the caterpillars of many species of moth, including the coronet, brick, centre-barred sallow and privet hawk-moth.

ash leaves in autumn

Credit: Ben Lee / WTML

Mythology and symbolism

The ash tree was thought to have medicinal and mystical properties and the wood was burned to ward off evil spirits. In Norse mythology, ash was the 'Tree of Life' and the first man on Earth was said to have come from an ash tree. Even today it is sometimes known as the 'Venus of the woods'. In Britain, druids regarded the ash as sacred and their wands were often made of ash because of its straight grain.

Uses of ash

People have worked with ash timber for years. It is one of the toughest hardwoods and absorbs shocks without splintering. It is the wood of choice for making tools and sport handles, including hammers, axes, spades, hockey sticks and oars. An attractive wood, it is also prized for furniture.

The young, green, immature seeds of ash are edible and have also been used in herbal medicine.

In the 19th century ash was commonly used to construct carriages, and Britain’s Morgan Motor Company still grows ash to make the frames for its cars.

Ash trees can live to a grand old age of 400 years – even longer if coppiced, the stems traditionally providing wood for firewood and charcoal.

Ash dieback and Pound Farm

Credit: WTML / Ed Parker

Threats and conservation

The main threat to ash trees is ash dieback, also known as Chalara dieback. This is a disease caused by a fungus called Hymenoscyphus fraxineus (previously Chalara fraxinea).

Ash dieback causes trees to lose their leaves and the crown to die back, and usually results in their death. It is thought that tens of thousands of ash trees will die, potentially changing the UK landscape forever.

Ash dieback leaf comparison

Trees woods and wildlife

Spotter's guide to ash dieback

Almost every skyline, whether urban or rural, will be marked by the loss of ash trees due to the deadly disease. Do you know how to spot it? Find out what to look out for.

How to spot ash dieback
Did you know?

The outbreak of ash dieback is predicted to cost £15 billion in Britain.

What are we doing about ash dieback?

We are at the forefront of the fight against ash dieback. From researching resistant strains to campaigning for better biosecurity, we are in a race against time.

English oak leaf turning yellow in autumn

Join the fight against tree disease

Disease decimated the UK's elms, and now another is wiping out our ash trees. But all is not lost - with replanting and tighter controls on tree imports, we can start to repair the damage.

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