Ash trees form a common part of the British landscape. Bushy and beautiful in full leaf, they provide strong hardwood when coppiced. Use this handy guide from the Forestry Commission to identify ash trees.
While thorn trees provide the most common tree-related place name in England, ash trees come second (Kendall 2021). People on the Isle of Man believed ash trees maintained their sacred springs, keeping them pure.
People considered ash an important tree. It was dangerous to even cut off a branch without respect. One young man in Derbyshire cut one down and was evicted from the parish (2011 : 19).
The links between these trees and folklore stretch back to ancient Ireland. Three of Ireland’s five guardian trees were ash. It’s also the second most common tree found beside holy wells in Ireland (Mac Coitir 2003). (The most common is the hawthorn). Many believe the ash had importance in well-dressing activities. The link between the ash and water isn’t so surprising—the tree was sacred to Poseidon, Greek god of the sea (Mac Coitir 2003).
But let’s head to the Nordic world to begin our quest…
Ash Trees and the Vikings
Paul Kendall describes Yggdrasil as an ash tree (2021). Since Yggdrasil, or the World Tree, links the underworld, our realm, and the heavens, the ash essentially holds the cosmos together. The ash makes a good choice for Yggdrasil since the trees grow to around 35 m! The tree’s roots were believed to cover the same depth below ground as branches reach in the air (2011 : 19).
Odin hung on the tree for nine days and dreamed of the Futhark Runes (though rune staves are also made of rowan).
The Nordic connections with ash trees continue. Thor and Odin both apparently had magical spears made of ash. Mortal Vikings also used ash for their spears, while people referred to them as the Aescling, or ‘Men of Ash’ (Kendall 2021).
Some believe Tolkien took inspiration from these ancient magical practitioners – even Gandalf’s staff is apparently ash!
The Ash and Magic
Many witches made their brooms from ash staffs (Harrington 2020: 18). Druidry.org theorise they used ash because of its Yggdrasil connections. But it could be more simple; ash makes great poles when you coppice it and it’s a strong wood. It’s handy for tools and handles because the wood takes shocks without splintering. The Welsh god Gwyddion used ash to make his staff.
Some people even believed witches lived inside ash trees. In some Germanic traditions, the Askafroa lived in the tree. This evil spirit could wreak havoc so people made a donation to her on Ash Wednesday to keep her happy (Porteous 2002).
People made milk pails and churnstaffs from ash to prevent the butter from being bewitched (Baker 2011 : 20). In Hampshire, the wassailing cup may be made from ash (Harrington 2020: 18).
Sew a sprig of ash and elm bark into your coat lining for protection (Harrington 2020: 19). In Yorkshire, people tied bunches of ash leaves to horse bridles to protect against both flies and evil magic (2011 : 19).
Ash is a dense wood and was one of the traditional woods used for the Yule log (2021). Meanwhile, a wand made of ash symbolised reverence (Binney 2018: 50).
In the West Country, people buried the first nail clippings of their children under ash trees. Apparently, this made them great singers (Baker 2011 : 20).
Ash and Prophecy
And if you want to become a prophet? Put ash leaves under your pillow and see what your dreams bring you. In northern England, the practice was particularly helpful if you were a young woman and you wanted to dream of your future husband.
Young women were also advised of another use of the ash in love divination. If they found an ‘even ash’, they should put it into their glove, saying:
The even ash in my glove(Baker 2011 : 21)
The first I meet shall be my love
An even ash was an ash leaf with an even number of smaller leaves along each side of the stalk. You could also use these for luck. If you found one, you should say:
Even ash, I do thee pluck,(Binney 2018: 126)
Hoping thus to meet good luck.
If no luck I get from thee,
I shall wish thee on the tree
An old proverb, “Avoid an ash, it counts the flash”, refers to the belief it attracting lightning strikes (Simpson 2008).
According to Margaret Baker, a failed crop of ‘keys’ (ash seeds) predicts a death in the Royal Family. Allegedly, no ash trees bore keys in 1648, the year before Charles I’s execution (2011 : 19).
Ash Trees and Healing
A teaspoon of ash sap became a popular remedy suitable for newborn babies (Baker 2011 : 19). In some villages, the locals made a cleft in an ash tree or sapling. Weak or ailing children were passed through the cleft (Simpson and Roud 2003). Binding the tree afterward helped it to heal as the child healed. In some places, the child grew protective of ‘their’ tree. It’s not surprising; so many people believed the lives of the child and ash tree became linked through this ritual. Apparently, some woodsmen even found the nails in the ash trees many years later! (Baker 2011 : 21)
In northern England, people thought ash trees could cure rickets. And elsewhere in Britain, people believe ash trees cured warts. Want it give it a try? Carry a pin or put a needle in your clothes somewhere. After three days, push it into the wart, and then into ash bark. Make sure you recite the charm while doing so:
Ashen tree, ashen tree,(Baker 2011 : 20)
Pray buy these warts of me!
The wart or boil should transfer to the tree (Baker 2011 : 20).
In Herefordshire, people pinned a lock of hair to an ash tree to cure whooping cough (Baker 2011 : 21). Apparently, this could even cure whooping cough suffered as far away as London!
Elsewhere, people suffering from ague would describe their symptoms to a woodman. Once the patient left, the woodman cut the first branch from a maiden ash. Maiden ash trees are those that are self-sown, not planted by humans. The patient should feel immediate relief once the branch was cut (Baker 2011 : 21).
If you found an ash chip cut when the sun entered Taurus, the chip could cure nosebleeds. Apparently, someone in Salisbury tried this for James II in 1688 and it worked! (Baker 2011 : 21)
And finally, distillations of ash leaves could help restore hearing (Weaver 2001: 47). Chop the leaves up, distill them in water, and rinse out your ears. (Note: you’d probably be better off seeing a pharmacist)
Ash Trees and Animals
Another, more random, remedy for pain in cattle involves shrews. People bored a hole in an ash tree trunk and blocked a live shrew in the hole. Laying the twigs or leaves from the ash would cure any pain or cramp felt by the cattle. Apparently, people thought a shrew running over the cow caused the problem in the first place (Simpson 2003).
Elsewhere, people buried horseshoes under felled ash trees. Farmers took twigs from these trees and passed them over their cattle’s back to cure them of ailments (Baker 2011 : 21).
For some reason, snakes apparently hated ash trees (Simpson 2003). People hung wreaths from the ash tree nearest the farmhouse to protect everyone within from snakebites (Baker 2011 : 20). You could also draw a circle around an adder with an ash stick to compel the snake to stay within the circle (Baker 2011 : 20).
It should go without saying that these remedies are for entertainment purposes only. See a doctor if you’re having health problems.
We may lose our noble ash trees
You can’t talk about these trees and not mention Chalara dieback. Also known as ash dieback, Britain saw its first confirmed cases in 2012. Caused by a fungus, trees stand little chance once it takes hold. It originated in Asia, though the native European trees have no resistance to the fungus (Woodland Trust). It’s estimated that 80% of UK ash trees will die from ash dieback. This will have an impact on biodiversity and the species that depend on ash trees.
There is some indication that some trees appear to be resistant to the fungus. Scientists are examining their genetics to see if they can help. Breeding a new generation of resistant trees would stem the tide, though this would take at least 50 years to have an effect (Woodland Trust).
They’re a wonderful addition to the British countryside and their folkloric links make them a magical part of our landscape. So watch this space!
What’s your favourite tree? Let me know below!
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Baker, Margaret (2011 ), Discovering the Folklore of Plants, third edition, Boxley, Oxford: Shire Classics (aff link).
Binney, Ruth (2018), Plant Lore and Legend, Hassocks: Rydon (aff link).
Harrington, Christina Oakley (2020), The Treadwell’s Book of Plant Magic, London: Treadwells Books.
Kendall, Paul (2021), ‘Ash mythology and folklore’, Trees for Life, https://treesforlife.org.uk/into-the-forest/trees-plants-animals/trees/ash/ash-mythology-and-folklore/.
Mac Coitir, Niall (2003), Ireland’s Trees – Myths, Legends & Folklore: Myth, Legend and Folklore, Cork: Collins Press (aff link).
Porteous, Alexander (2002 ), The Forest in Folklore and Mythology, New York: Dover (aff link) .
Simpson, Jacqueline and Steve Roud (2003), Oxford Dictionary of English Folklore, Oxford: Oxford University Press (aff link).
Simpson, John and Jennifer Speake (2008), The Oxford Dictionary of Proverbs, fifth edition, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Weaver, William Woys (2001), Sauer’s Herbal Cures: America’s First Book of Botanic Healing 1762-1778, translated and edited by William Woys Weaver, London: Routledge.
Woodland Trust (no date), ‘Ash dieback’, Woodland Trust, https://www.woodlandtrust.org.uk/trees-woods-and-wildlife/tree-pests-and-diseases/key-tree-pests-and-diseases/ash-dieback/.
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