Perhaps the most graceful of our native deciduous trees, the ash family is well represented in Dulwich. The name comes from the Anglo-Saxon aesc, but also in part from ask, the Scandinavian name. Many place names up and down the country are derived from these names: in Wales, many are similarly derived from onnen, the Welsh word for the tree.
The common ash, Fraxinus excelsior, self-seeds profusely in Dulwich. It can be distinguished from our other common native trees by its leaf, which is compounded of many leaflets. This design ensures that, even in high summer, you see plenty of light shining through on to the pale smooth branches and on to the trunk, which is a soft fawnish-grey (ash-grey) in colour. Most ash leaves end in a terminal leaflet, thus having an odd number of leaflets but even-ash leaves can be found and, like four-leaved clovers, are sometimes thought to bring good luck. The tree is normally the last to come into leaf, well after the oak. On that theme, The Woodland Trust has gone to the trouble of pronouncing that there is no truth in the old saying “Oak before ash, in for a splash/ Ash before oak, in for a soak”. In the autumn, the leaves usually fall early and come down in one piece, rather than leaflet by leaflet. They attract earthworms, which drag the blades down and leave the stalks in view, standing out at odd angles.
When not in leaf, the ash can best be identified by its striking black buds, well caught by Tennyson’s “More black than ash-buds in the front of March” (from ‘The Constant Gardener’); as well as by the bunches of ash-keys which tend to persist on the tree through the winter.
There are a number of Fraxinus excelsior cultivars around Dulwich, such as the Weeping Ash ‘Pendula’, to be seen in a number of places including outside Ash Cottage in the Village, and the Golden Ash ‘Jaspidea’, which can be seen both in Dulwich Village and on Frank Dixon Way. The splendid Manna Ash, Fraxinus ornus, that once adorned the garden of Brightlands Boarding House is, sadly, no more but other examples are to be seen on College Road and in Dulwich Park. College Road, the single most distinguished road for trees in Dulwich, also has good specimens of Fraxinus angustifolia, the Narrow-leaved ash and Fraxinus diversifolia, the Single-leaved ash.
The Claret Ash, Fraxinus angustifolia ssp.oxycarpa ‘Raywood’ has been planted in Druce Road (as well as in most British supermarket car parks).