The Babe and the Old Timer – Tales of Two Ash Trees

Tree Diaries ~ Apr 2021

Julie’s ash – About 5 yrs old


The Old Ash – About 120 years old?

The arrival of a new tree a few weeks ago has inspired me to write another ‘Tree Diaries’ post – taking time to have a close up look at two more of our trees. This time, they’re both ash trees, but at very different stages of life: one but a babe, the other is an old timer.

The Babe

Julie’s Gift

The smiling woman in the photo above is my green-fingered friend, and Plastic Free Faversham team mate, Julie Beer. A month or so ago, she messaged me to say she’d read this blog and seen all the tree planting that we were doing, and asked if we could adopt her young ash tree. She discovered it five years ago in a plastic pot in her garden – it had decided to sow itself there. Over the years she’s nurtured it as it’s grown, moving it into a bigger pot and watering and feeding it along with her veggies. Now over 5 feet tall, it was time to get its roots into open soil, in a place where it could live for the rest of its life.

It is clear that Julie has given so much love and attention to this tree so I feel really honoured (and a BIG sense of responsibility!) to be its new custodian. I intend to look after it really well and I’m sure Julie will be visiting to see her young charge spread its branches.

Current Age and Size

  1. 5 years old

  2. 1.65 metres tall

‘Common ash’ or ‘European ash’ trees can live up to 400 years, although about 200 is more typical (and sadly maybe a lot less for many UK trees due to ash die back disease – more on this later in the post). They are some of the tallest trees in the UK and can grow up to 35 metres tall – hence their Latin name Fraxinus excelsior: Fraxinus, meaning ‘of the Ash genus’, and excelsior meaning ‘higher’.

On the Edge of the Wild

I’ve planted Julie’s ash at a point where formal and tidy meets wild and untamed. To give it the space it needs to establish itself, and so that it’ll be easily accessible to visit and tend to, I gave it an area of its own using a mulch of wood chippings and some fallen branches to delineate the space. Lush nutritious nettles will soon be growing all around the edges of the area. Beyond, the weedy wilderness which will soon be emerging, and just a few feet in front, the lawned formal border to the driveway. So, well connected to our human everyday comings and goings, but firmly rooted in a thriving, diverse ecosystem. There are a few tall, mature trees nearby – two ailing pear trees that won’t last last enough to be any competition, and a silver birch far enough away for a great ash tree to spread out next to.

Black Buds, Purple Flowers and Green ‘Keys’

Black buds on our young ash tree

At this time of year, there are no leaves to talk about, only these little black buds. Julie compared them to tiny deer feet – and I see what she means – although in this photo I think they look rather like tiny devilish fingernails! These unusual black buds make the ash easy to identify in winter when there are no leaves, flowers or fruits to go on. Research tells me that during spring these buds will produce purple flowers as you can see in the image below that I found online. These will either be male or female flowers as ash trees are usually dioecious, i.e. having all female or all male flowers. However, occasionally a tree can have both – and sometimes they even switch from male to female in successive years!

LEFT: Ash tree flowers (Image by Rosser1954, Wiki Commons), RIGHT: Ash tree fruit (‘keys’) (Image by Pleple2000 , Wiki Commons)

When we get some flowers then, I may be able to tell the sex. Although, having said that, the flowers on males and females look pretty similar to me (female flowers are slightly longer apparently) so it may be hard to tell. We will know with more certainty later in the year, however, if the flowers produce the ‘keys’ shown in the picture on the right above, as these are the fruit produced by the pollinated female flowers.

Let’s see what the seasons reveal!

The Old-Timer

Our old ash is a favourite of mine. I’ve written about it before in my post The Woodpecker in the Ash. In that post I shared how it was watching a woodpecker visit the tree every morning as I drank my coffee in bed that had really drawn me to it. Much of its crown is dead now, but that decay is only serving to attract an even greater influx of life, as lichens, mosses, ivy and invertebrates abound.

Current Age and Size

  1. Height: ~ 20 metres

  2. Diameter of crown: 21 metres

  3. Girth of trunk: 3 metres (circumference at 1m height)

  4. Age: ~120 years (A rough calculation based on 2.5 cm growth of trunk girth per year)

So, one of the oldest and tallest trees here, but sadly not going to be one of the three hundred year old, 35 metre giants. I love to imagine Julie’s ash being a worthy successor in a hundred years time. If it can survive the ravages of ash die back that is (more of this later in the post).

A Dying Crown

The most obvious sign that the tree is dying is the fact that most of the crown no longer produces leaves. The leafiest part is the dress of ivy it wears so fetchingly. I can’t find a photo from the summer when it’s in leaf to put in here, but I’ll write a follow up later in the year, with pictures, so I can document the full extent of the dead/living branches. I have also learnt that this is important for watching for signs of ash die back disease (see below).

Another sign of the poor health of the tree is missing bark and rotting interior in the front section of the base. A visiting tree surgeon suggested a few years ago that perhaps the demise of the tree has been due to being so close to our pond, having its roots too wet. In his opinion at that time, the cause is not ash die back.

With a section of bark missing, the interior wood is rotting, becoming host to insects and fungi – Mar 21

Lichens, Mosses and Fungus

‘Ash represents the whole world for many lichens and the invertebrate fauna which depends on them.’ So says the Ash Project based here in Kent. The high pH of ash bark makes it uniquely hospitable to lichen, with 536 different species living on it – 220 of these are considered nationally rare. I must say, until recently I was foolishly indifferent to lichen, but having had a close up look at some of the branches that have fallen off the old ash, I am bewitched.

Moss and lichen on fallen ash branch – Nov 2020

I love the beautiful moss in this picture too. I think it’s ‘Wood Bristle Moss’ (Orthotrichum affine) which particularly favours ash. I’d like to call it Star Moss though – don’t they look like little green starbursts?.

I also adore this picture of another fallen branch – the gelatinous Witches Butter fungus (Tremella mesenterica) is star of the show, with a couple of gorgeous lichens as supporting acts.

Witches Butter fungus (Tremella mesenterica) on ash tree branches – Nov 2020

A few notes on ash die-back disease

Julie’s kind offer of her young tree ended up with both of us going on quite a research quest. Was it right to share and plant ash trees in light of the risks of ash die back disease?

Ash is the third most common tree in the UK, with approximately 150 million mature trees around the country (1). However, during the 1990s, a devastating fungal disease called ash-die back (Hymenoscyphus fraxineus) was imported into Europe from Asia and rapidly spread, killing off huge numbers of ash trees. Tragically, there is no known cure, and research suggests that seven or eight out of every ten ash trees in the UK will die of the disease. A possible glimmer of hope is that some trees have shown a level of tolerance, and isolated ash trees (such as those in hedgerows, open fields or gardens) may be less affected than those in woodland.(2)

I was uncertain for a while as to whether planting Julie’s tree was the right thing to do. A couple of local tree experts had told me to avoid planting young ash trees – that young trees were more susceptible to the disease, and could perpetuate the spread. Since 2012 all imports and sales of ash trees have been banned by the UK government (3), so I could not buy a young ash, and it is only because one decided to grow in Julie’s garden and she has nurtured it that it has come to be. Should she not have let it grow? Now that it’s a seemingly healthy 5 foot tree, should we not continue to nurture it in the hope that it might resist the tide of disease? I just didn’t know what to think.

In the end I was encouraged by the Tree Council’s advice to tree owners:

By retaining trees with no or limited signs of ash dieback, owners and tree managers might allow precious ash dieback-tolerant trees to live and reproduce.

In addition, dying and dead ash trees have huge ecological value, especially mature, veteran and ancient trees, so provided that they are managed following current guidance on tree risk management, it’s important to keep them in the landscape.

‘ASH DIEBACK DISEASE: A GUIDE FOR TREE OWNERS’, p5, The Tree Council, June 2020.

So, whilst deliberately cultivating ash trees is not advised, and planting alternative native trees should be our focus, ‘retaining’ what we have – both the young and the old trees – seems to be more beneficial than getting rid of them. We need to be responsible and watchful though. At the moment I don’t believe either has the disease, but I intend to review this each summer when the tree is in leaf so it’s easier to look for signs of die back. Diseased trees don’t necessarily have to be felled – their benefits as deadwood to wildlife are potentially greater than any risk they pose. Of course dead branches can be dangerous and so we’d have to cut down any that could fall and hurt someone. Also, if one of the trees was diseased we would need to clear and burn fallen leaves and branches to help reduce the spread.

I never imagined whether or not to plant a tree would be such a thorny question and lead me into such a depth of research. But it’s been fascinating and now that I’ve decided to embrace Julie’s ash and given it a home, I’m really looking forward to seeing how it matures and keeping my eye on it – and its old timer cousin – will they survive this devastating disease, or will they succumb?

The Old Ash and an April sunset – April 2021

(1) The Ash Project – https://www.theashproject.org.uk/

(2) Ash Dieback: A Guide for Tree Owners – The Tree Council, June 2020 – page 3

(3) Government bans imports of ash trees, (2012) https://www.gov.uk/government/news/government-bans-imports-of-ash-trees

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