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Ash Dieback

You may have read in the news recently that ash trees across the country are under threat from ash dieback, a serious disease caused by the fungus Chalara fraxinea. The UK’s population of 80 million ash trees are deemed to be at serious risk of contracting the disease, which causes leaf loss and can lead to tree death, with the disease now having been found in Carmarthenshire, Greater London, Essex and Kent. The same disease decimated 90% of the ash tree population in Denmark. According to the BBC, the disease has now been confirmed at 82 locations in England and Scotland (, with some saying that it may be too late to halt the spread of the disease.

You can check to see whether ash dieback has reached trees in your area by using the AshTag app or by visiting

In view of the crisis, we thought we would publish an extract from our forthcoming book, The Tree: Meaning and Myth, which tells the story of the ash tree and what it means to British history.  We hope to get some good news on British ash trees soon!

Tree - Meaning and Myth, The

“The use of Ash is (next to that of the Oak itself) one of the most universal: It serves the Souldier… the Carpenter, Wheel-wright, Cart-wright, Cooper, Turner and Thatcher… From the Pike, Spear and Bow… to the Plow; in Peace and War it is a wood in highest request.

-John Evelyn, Sylva (1664)

“THE ASH (Fraxinus ornus, sometimes known as the manna ash tree because of its sweet sap ) was used to make spear shafts, the most celebrated being the spear of Achilles, with which he slew Hector and the Amazon queen Penthesilea in the battle for Troy:’ ‘No other Achaean fighter could heft that shaft, only Achilles had the skill to wield it well: Pelian ash it was, a gift to his father Peleus presented by Chiron once, hewn on Pelion’s crest to be the death of heroes’.

In Scandinavia the ash acquired mythic status as Yggdrasil, the world tree in the poems and tales of Norse mythology known as the Eddur. There was intense literary and artistic interest in the medieval Norse sagas in the later part of the nineteenth century, championed in Britain by William Morris, who translated them from Icelandic.

Ash Image 1

Fraxinus excelsior (European or common ash) is the most widely found species of ash in many parts of Europe. An early and remarkably complete item made from this wood is a sword-sheath from the Iron Age fortifications at Stanwick St John in North Yorkshire, a stronghold of the Brigante tribe, whose territory extended over much of the north of England in the first century AD. Fragmentary evidence of the same wood has been found in connection with objects from many other archaeological sites in Britain, including the shield and buckets from the early seventh-century Anglo-Saxon ship burial at Sutton Hoo in Suffolk. But the Stanwick scabbard was exceptionally well preserved because it remained waterlogged in silt at the bottom of a defensive ditch, and was thereby deprived of the oxygen that causes decay.” …

The pliability and toughness of ash make it particularly well suited for timber frame structures, which are emulated in a ‘living sculpture’ by David Nash, an artist whose career has been dedicated to exploring the relationship between man and nature. His project Ash Dome began in February 1977, when he planted twenty-two saplings in Snowdonia, North Wales, with the intention of developing a domed space over thirty years.”

Text and image © Trustees of the British Museum

The Tree: Meaning & Myth, written by Frances Carey, will be published on 26th November by the British Museum Press. To look inside the book, visit the British Museum online shop.

Category: History


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