Thursday, 10 January 2013

Mighty Ash

Well I had to choose somewhere to begin, Some species that would warrant the attention of this blog above all other plant species. Well I had to choose, but i did so not just based on its alphabetical position, not because of its easy identification or even because of its unfortunate new found fame as potentially becoming the new Elm in our countryside. That is, it is being threatened by an invasive parasite on par with Dutch elm ( Lets start with the Ash  because as a forager, a bushcrafter or anyone with a interest in the British countryside, The Ash quite literally gives you the 'Keys' to start your journey as a forager!

Its latin Name Fraxinus Excelsior kind of sounds like a name that this tree deserves. Fraxinus meaning Spear in both Latin and old English, and Excelsior Meanining 'Ever Upward' In Latin. Both conjour images of strength and power. It no wonder that Ash Lends itself to so many uses with such a name.

It is a hard wood which is very dense, whilst being very tough, strong and elastic, and therefore is great for creating Archers bows and tool handles.

As a fire wood ash is golden! you can burn it seasoned or green. There is a short ditty which explains the burning properties of fire wood by an unknown author which reads;

Beechwood fires are bright and clear
If the logs are kept a year,
Chestnut's only good they say,
If for logs 'tis laid away.
Make a fire of Elder tree,
Death within your house will be;
But ash new or ash old,
Is fit for a queen with crown of gold.

Birch and fir logs burn too fast
Blaze up bright and do not last,
it is by the Irish said
Hawthorn bakes the sweetest bread.
Elm wood burns like churchyard mould,
E'en the very flames are cold
But Ash green or Ash brown
Is fit for a queen with golden crown.

Poplar gives a bitter smoke,
Fills your eyes and makes you choke,
Apple wood will scent your room
Pear wood smells like flowers in bloom
Oaken logs, if dry and old
keep away the winter's cold
But Ash wet or Ash dry
a king shall warm his slippers by

So not only is ash great for Tools and Weapons. but also is the king of fire woods! but what else?

Well Medicinally the Ash has a few tricks up its sleeve. The inner bark can be prepared into a tea which can help combat Depression. A Tea of the dried leaves can be used as a laxative this can also be used on slow healing infected wounds if made slightly stronger.
Its Keys can be made into something similar to lime pickle and all the wood is food safe for use in spoon carving etc.

So this all sounds great but how can I find it? Well luckily its a fairly easy tree to identify...even in the depths of winter. It has large black buds almost looking like a birds bill that are dissimilar to any other tree bud
And its branches look like the leering hand of a menacing child catcher, motioning its big black nails upwards in a come hither motion

In the Spring the ash's compound, pinnate leaf. Of which the central stem of the compound leaf bears 9 – 13 leaflets in pairs, with one at the tip. There are no stalks to the side leaflets. The leaflets are pointed and toothed, with hairs on the lower surface.

They leaves appear relatively late in Spring, and are amongst the first to be shed in Autumn. But its seeds or keys can remain on throughout winter and look like this

Here is a recipe for ash key pickle taken from the web

One thing to make sure is that you pick your Ash Keys when they are very young, and the small seed within the ‘wing’ has barely developed. You can see the seed if you hold the Ash Key up to the sunlight. 
§ 2 cups of Ash Keys without stalks
§ 1 tsp ground cloves
§ 1 tsp ground cinnamon
§ 4 bay leaves
§ 8 peppercorns
§ 1 tsp allspice
§ 1/2 tsp ground ginger
§ 1 tsp salt
§ 3 tbsp brown sugar
§ 2 cups cider vinegar
§ water
Suggested Instructions
1. Wash your Ash Keys, then place in a pan covered with cold water and bring to the boil. Simmer for 5 minutes.
2. Strain off the water and return to the pan with some fresh water, then bring back to boil and simmer a further 5 minutes.
3. Drain off the water again, allow to ‘dry’ slightly and then pack into warm dry jars, but allow an inch of space from the top of the jar.
4. Put the spices, salt and sugar into a bowl and add the vinegar.
5. Put the bowl into a saucepan (cover it), add some water (not to the bowl but just into the pan) and bring slowly to the boil. I’ve never been very good at this so my one splutters and bubbles furiously, even when its on simmer. I’m sure there’s some scientific reason, but as I failed miserably at science I don’t have an answer. Allow to gently boil for about 5 minutes, then remove the bowl and let it sit for about 4 hours or until it is cold.
6. Strain the liquid through a muslin or sieve into a jug and pour over the Ash Keys filling the jars right to the brim.
7. Screw on the tops or better yet use the kind of jars I have in the picture above.
8. Store for 3 months and let the pickle ‘mature’.
9. Give your friends a shock when you serve this up as an after dinner treat, along with some fine cheese.

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