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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