A future without ashes? More or less devastating depending on where you are. When the elms went in Essex (and the memory is still raw) the young oaks and ashes in our copses and hedges were our hope for the future; the silver bat willows the quick answer, providing the missing dimension of height to the denuded fields – at least where there was a stream.
Forty years later the transformation is complete. Ashes and oaks provide the framework to views in all directions. Happily in the country round us oaks are in a majority of at least 2:1 and I know of few places in East Anglia with anything like a monoculture of ash.
Our own best ashes, in fact, are in North Wales. They line the rushing streams where they cut deep into the hills, growing among boulders and ferns. Curiously, in the high humidity of sheltered valleys and often daily rain their smooth trunks become bright orange, flecked here and there with green moss. I have never seen so bright a colour elsewhere; could it be a local phenomenon?
Meanwhile their seedlings come up like cress all around. Why do British nurseries import trees like this wholesale from the Low Countries? I put the question to a chairman of the Horticultural Trades Association at a Chelsea lunch a few years ago. ‘Because we’re inefficient’, he said, ‘and the Dutch government somehow subsidizes their nursery trade’. If this were true it would raise a lot of questions – about the workings of the Common Market, for example.
And what to plant in the place of ash? There is not a wide choice of natives that could take its place. In most soils the field maple (though never so big) would do well. Alder is fine in damp spots, especially in winter when it is festooned with catkin and fruit. But disease threatens our alders, too.
First choice should be the small-leaved lime, Tilia cordata, a too-rare native that fits perfectly into our lowland landscape, can grow to a fine height and can live for centuries. The scent of its flowers in late June is intoxicating. The place not to plant it is in car parks; it can drop honeydew. Seedlings are rare – which is presumably why it is not better distributed.
Perhaps our nurseries should start propagating it now before the Dutch get the idea.