Medical Herbs Catalogue



Botanical Name: Fraxinus excelsior (LINN.)
Family: N.O. Oleaceae
Synonyms---Common Ash. Weeping Ash.
Parts Used: Leaves, bark.

Description: The Common Ash (Fraxinus excelsior, Linn.), a tall, handsome tree, common in Britain, is readily distinguished by its light-grey bark (smooth in younger trees, rough and scaly in older specimens) and by its large compound leaves, divided into four to eight pairs of lance-shaped leaflets, tipped by a single one, an arrangement which imparts a light feathery arrangement to the foliage. The leaflets have sharply-toothed margins and are about 3 inches long.

In April or May, according to season, and before the appearance of the leaves, the black flower-buds on the previous year's shoots expand into small dense clusters of a greenish white or purplish colour, some of the minute flowers having purple stamens, others pistil only, and some both, but all being devoid of petals and sepals, which, owing to the pollen being wind-borne, are not needed as protection, or as attraction to insect visitors.

After fertilization, the oblong ovary develops into a thick seed-chamber, with a long, strap-shaped wing which is known as an Ash-key (botanically: a samara). The bunches of 'keys' hang from the twigs in great clusters, at first green and then brown as the seeds ripen. They remain attached to the tree until the succeeding spring, when they are blown off and carried away by the wind to considerable distances from the parent tree. They germinate vigorously and grow in almost any soil.

The Common Ash and the Privet are the only representatives in England of the Olive tribe: Oleaceae.

There are about fifty species of the genus Fraxinus, and cultivation has produced and perpetuated a large number of distinct varieties, of which the Weeping Ash and the Curl-leaved Ash are the best known.

As a timber tree, the Ash is exceedingly valuable, not only on account of the quickness of its growth, but for the toughness and elasticity of its wood, in which quality it surpasses every European tree. The wood is heavy strong, stiff and hard and takes a high polish; it shrinks only moderately in seasoning and bends well when seasoned. It is the toughest and most elastic of our timbers (for which purpose it was used in olden days for spears and bows and is still used for otter-spears) and can be used for more purposes than the wood of other trees.

It is known that Ash timber is so elastic that a joist of it will bear more before it breaks than one of any other tree. It matures more rapidly than Oak and as sapling wood is valuable. Ash timber always fetches a good price, being next in value to Oak and surpassing it for some purposes, being in endless demand in railway and other waggon works for carriage building. From axe-handles and spade-trees to hop-poles, ladders and carts, Ash wood is probably in constant handling on every countryside - for agricultural plenishings it cannot be excelled. It makes the best of oars and the toughest of shafts for carriages. In its younger stages, when it is called Ground Ash, it is much used, as well as for hop-poles (for which it is extensively grown), for walking-sticks, hoops, hurdles and crates, and it matures its wood at so early an age that an Ash-pole 3 inches in diameter is as valuable and durable for any purpose to which it can be applied as the timber of the largest tree. Ash also makes excellent logs for burning, giving out no smoke, and the ashes of the wood afford very good potash.

The finest Ash is that grown in the Midlands, but so little first-class Ash has been of late years obtained in England that in I 90 I the Coachbuilders' Association appealed to the President of the Board of Agriculture to try and stimulate landowners to grow more of this valuable timber, as English Ash is better in quality than that imported from other European countries or from America. Any owner of a devastated woodland or other suitable ground may demand a grant of L. 2 (pounds sterling) an acre if he is planting pine, and L. 4 (pounds sterling)if he is planting hard woods, such as Ash. The supply of standing Ash timber is also becoming limited in America.

Ash is the second most important wood used in aeroplanes, and a study of the spacious afforestation scheme now in force over the Crown Lands of the New Forest reveals the fact that especial trouble has been taken to find suitable homes for the Ash. The great bulk of the wood used in aeroplanes is Spruce from the Pacific Coast.

Ash bark is astringent and has been employed for tanning nets.

Both bark and the leaves have medicinal use and fetch prices which should repay the labour of collecting them, especially the bark.

The bark is collected from the trunk and the root, the latter being preferred.

Ash bark occurs in commerce in quills which are grey or greenish-grey externally, with numerous small grey or brownishwhite warts, the inner surface yellowish or yellowish brown and nearly smooth; fracture smooth, fibrous in the inner layer, odourslight; taste bitter and astringent.

Constituents: The bark contains the bitter glucoside Fraxin, the bitter substance Fraxetin, tannin, quercetin, mannite, a little volatile oil, gum, malic acid, free and combined with calcium.

Medicinal Action and Uses: Ash bark has been employed as a bitter tonic and astringent, and is said to be valuable as an antiperiodic. On account of its astringency, it has been used, in decoction, extensively in the treatment of intermittent fever and ague, as a substitute for Peruvian bark. The decoction is odourless, though its taste is fairly bitter. It has been considered useful to remove obstructions of the liver and spleen, and in rheumatism of an arthritic nature.

A ley from the ashes of the bark was used formerly to cure scabby and leprous heads.

The leaves have diuretic, diaphoretic and purgative properties, and are employed in modern herbal medicine for their laxative action, especially in the treatment of gouty and rheumatic complaints, proving a useful substitute for Senna, having a less griping effect. The infusion of the leaves, 1 OZ. to the pint, may be given in frequent doses during the twenty-four hours.

The distilled water of the leaves, taken every morning, was considered good for dropsy and obesity.

A decoction of the leaves in white wine had the reputation of dissolving stone and curing jaundice.

The leaves should be gathered in June, well dried, powdered and kept in wellcorked bottles.

The leaves have been gathered to mix with tea and in some parts of the country are used to feed cattle, when grass is scarce in autumn, but when cows eat the leaves or shoots, the butter becomes rank.

The fruits of the different species of Ash are regarded as somewhat more active than the bark and leaves. Ash Keys were held in high reputation by the ancient physicians, being employed as a remedy for flatulence. They were also in more recent times preserved with salt and vinegar and sent to table as a pickle. Evelyn tells us: 'Ashen keys have the virtue of capers,' and they were often substituted for them in sauces and salads.

The keys will keep all the year round if gathered when ripe.

In Mexico, the bark and leaves of F. nigra (Marsh), the Black Swamp, Water Hoop or Basket Ash, are similarly employed to those of the Common Ash. In Mexico, also, the bark and leaves of F. lanceolata (Borch.), the Green or Blue Ash, are employed as a bitter tonic and the root as a diuretic.

In the United States, the bark of the American White Ash (F. Americana, Linn.) (F. acuminata, Lam.) finds similar employment. It has numerous small circular depressions externally and a slightly laminate structure. Gerard tell us: 'The leaves and bark of the Ash tree are dry and moderately hot . . . the seed is hot and dry in the second degree. The juice of the leaves or the leaves themselves being applied or taken with wine cure the bitings of vipers, as Dioscorides saith, "The leaves of this tree are of so greate virtue against serpents as that they dare not so much as touch the morning and evening shadows of the tree, but shun them afar off as Pliny reports." '

There are many old superstitions concerning the tree. The ancient couplets connecting the flowering precedence of the Oak and Ash with the rainfall of the following summer, 'Oak choke, Ash splash,' etc., have no basis on fact.

According to another superstition, if the trunk of a sapling Ash were split and a ruptured child passed through, the sufferer would be cured. The Ash had the reputation of magically curing warts: each wart must be pricked with a new pin that has been thrust into the tree, the pins are withdrawn and left in the tree, and the following charm is repeated: 'Ashen tree, ashen tree, Pray buy these warts of me.'

And there was another superstition that if a live shrew mouse were buried in a hole bored in an Ash trunk and then plugged up a sprig of this Shrew Ash would cure the paralysis supposed to have been caused by a shrew creeping over the sick person's limbs.