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The Northern Gods

The Talley Ash

The Ash

The Ash Yggdrasill
The Talley Abbey Ash
The Glen Lyon Ash

The name "Ash" most commonly refers to trees of the genus Fraxinus (from Latin "ash tree") in the olive family Oleaceae, which contains 45-65 species. The Genus is one of about 29 in the olive family. However, "Ash" can refer to any of four different tree genera from four very distinct families. The ashes are usually medium to large trees and are usually deciduous although a few subtropical species are evergreen.

In North America, the name "Mountain ash" is applied to species of the genus Sorbus, mainly because the leaves have a similar appearance to those of the ash. These trees are commonly known in the UK as Rowans and Whitebeams.

The seeds, popularly known as helicopter seeds, are a type of fruit known as a samara. The tree's common English name goes back to the Old English æsc, a word also routinely used in Old English documents to refer to spears made of ash wood. The Celts, Greeks and the Germanic tribes all used the straight, strong, tough ash wood to make spears and in Greek myth, Achilles killed Hector with an ash spear. In peaceful times the wood is used for tool handles, oars, gates and sports equipment.

The tree has long been used in Europe as animal leaf fodder, second only to the elm in this respect. They are soft for cattle, sheep, goats and deer to chew but are rich in nutrients.

The Ash Yggdrasill

The Ash held great significance as the World tree, in Norse mythology. Odin and his brothers thrust Ymir into the Yawning Void and made the world from his body. They set the sea around the world and planted the Ash Yggdrasil to hold it in place. However we have to be careful - it seems that Ash was a later mis-interpretation and that Yggdrasil was actually a Yew tree. It was described as a "winter=green needle ash", The problem is that the ash is neither evergreen nor does it have needles. The Norse word ask can either mean an Ash tree or "pointed". so the correct interpretation is probably "a pointed evergreen tree with needles" - in other words, a Yew.

Link to our article on The Northern Gods

One of its roots extended into Niflheim, the underworld; another into Jötunheim, land of the giants; and the third into Asgard, home of the gods. At its base were three wells: Urdarbrunnr (Well of Fate), from which the tree was watered by the Norns (the Fates); Hvergelmir (Roaring Kettle), in which dwelt Nidhogg, the monster that gnawed at the tree’s roots; and Mímisbrunnr (Mimir’s Well), source of wisdom, for the waters of which Odin sacrificed an eye.

After Ragnarök (Doomsday), the world tree, though badly shaken, was to be the source of new life.

The Talley Abbey Ash

The Talley Abbey Ash

The Woodland Trust's Tree 3548, The Talley Abbey Ash in Carmarthen is one of the largest ash trees in the whole of the UK. The fact that the site itself has been recorded as far back as the 12th century gives an idea of how old the tree may be. See photograph at the left.

The Glen Lyon Ash

Standing in Perthshire's Glen Lyon and with a girth of 20 feet, the Glen Lyon Ash is the largest and one of the oldest examples of its species in Scotland. It appears to have been pollarded repeatedly throughout its life and the small shoots resulting are a sustainable source of timber and animal fodder.

The Ash in natural Healing

The ash has been praised in European medical texts since the fourth century BC. Hippocrates (460 to 377BC) used an infusion for gout and rheumatism. This strategy is also employed in classical homeopathy. A tea can be made from the leaves collected in spring or early summer, which has a diuretic and laxative effect. It promotes the flow of urine and the excretion of uric acid which helps to detoxify the body.

Nicholas Culpeper

According to Culpeper, "It is governed by the sun; and the young tender tops, with the leaves, taken inwardly, and some of them outwardly applied, are sigularly good against the biting of viper, adder or any other venemous beast." He goes on to add that the water distilled therefrom helps with dropsy and obesity. A decoction of the leaves in white wine "helpeth to break the stone (gallstones?) and cureth the jaundice. the ashes of the bark can be used to cure heads which are "leprous, scabby or scald". Finally he adds that the ashen keys (the kernels within the husks) "prevail against stitches and pains in hte sides, proceeding of wind and voideth away the stone (again, gallstones?) by provoking the urine.

The emerald ash borer is a significant pest. The adult male is shown on the right.

Adult male emerald ash borer

Acknowledgements and further reading:

The Heritage Trees of Britain and Northern IrelandJon Stokes and Donald RodgerConstable
The Oxford Companion to English LiteratureSir Paul HarveyOUP
The Observer's Book of TreesFrederick Warne & Co. Ltd.
Celtic Myths and LegendsGeddes and GrossetGeddes and Grosset
The Meaning of TreesFred HagenederChronicle Books
The Celtic Book of Seasonal MeditationsClaire HamiltonRed Wheel
The Complete HerbalNicholas CulpeperGreenwich Editions

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© Ken James 2008