Golden European Ash, Garden to Brushpile to Vase

With yolk-yellow bark and ebony-black bud scales, young stems of golden ash are stunning. Even more stems? An even better show. So I cut off the oldest stems to encourage plenty of new ones, and also to keep the tree as compact as a shrub. Then, everything is more-or-less at eye level.


Fraxinus excelsior Aureafolia before pruning 011918 640


Normally, I cut back just one or two of the main branches each year. Fraxinus excelsior 'Aureafolia' is unusual in preferring to be pruned in fall or early winter; it's more often the case that pruning is done in late winter or early spring. For woody plants with cold-weather displays of colorful young twigs, pruning when the return of warm weather is near is triply convenient: The pruning removes all of those recently colorful twigs, which, when they grow their second season, will no longer be as colorful. It also stimulates production of a new crop of twigs that, when winter returns, will be colorful, indeed. The pruning also keeps the plant compact, because new wood doesn't ever stick around long enough to become the branches and limbs that turn something shrub-sized into something tree-sized.


Such end-of-winter pruning is normally radical, truly an "off with its head" massacre. Spring will soon bring on the garden's usual explosion of, well, everything, so new growth will begin appearing in just days: There's little downside to losing all of a plant's first-year stems in the interim.


Poplars and ash trees, however, prefer being pruned at the start of winter, not the end. They both have cultivars with colorful winter bark, so their pruning should be gradual, not global: If only two or three of the oldest branches were removed each December or January, plenty of other branches would still be left behind to carry the show through until spring. (I prune my standard of gold-leaved poplar radically even so, convincing myself that the shocking show that remains—the branchless, club-footed top of the tree's trunk—is itself stunning. But, yes, this also means that I've ended this poplar's show of winter twigs by the New Year.)


For the golden ash, I had intended to be the gradualist as usual. But I missed the early-winter pruning window last season, and the tree has been (happily) so vigorous that new stems five and six feet long have popped up plentifully. It was time to catch-up, to reset the pruning cycle.


Invoking another handy rule of thumb—If you're not yet horrified by what you've done, you haven't cut off enough—I wielded the folding saw with ruthless abandon. In five minutes, the massacre was over.  


Fraxinus excelsior Aureafolia after pruning 011918 640


The remaining branches are older and thicker than anything I had cut off. Notice how much paler and tanner they are; there really is merit to growing this tree to enhance the production of the colorful younger stems.


For a day, the stack of "cut-offs"—the severed main branches that bore all those glorious yellow-barked young side branches and tips—lay atop the garden's huge brushpile. But then a dinner invitation from stylish friends popped up. Even toting the de rigueur two bottles of good wine, we couldn't show up otherwise empty handed.


To the rescue, those discarded branches of golden ash. If I cut off all of their young stems, for once—and possibly the only time if I kept to the ideal pruning rhythm of cutting just a couple of branches each winter—I'd have a veritable armload of bright-barked youngsters to bring to dinner.


Back to the brushpile. I dragged each branch of golden ash off the top and clipped off all of its colorful stems. There were enough to fill a shopping bag and, later, our hosts' antique wood well bucket. 


Fraxinus excelsior Aureafolia 012118 dock 640


Thanks to the dreamy location on a cove overlooking Long Island Sound, it was worth it to return the next day in mid-afternoon to shoot the arrangement in flattering low winter light. In the shot above, the bucket is atop the last post of our friends' dock.


The bizarrely beautiful cloven-hoof array of protective black bud scales at the tips of the stems were as striking as ever.


Fraxinus excelsior Aureafolia 012118 fingers bud 640 


There's beach only at low tide; otherwise, the water laps as high as the algae-blackened border of the ledge. Handily, early afternoon is low tide, so the strip of sand was exposed. With my heels just an inch from icy-cold water behing me, there was just room to crouch for this shot, below, of the bucket of stems placed atop the lowest shelf of ledge.


Fraxinus excelsior Aureafolia 012118 ledge 640 


These stems don't need to sit in water—the last thing wanted would be for them to begin to leaf out, which would mean the shedding of the black scales. How long will the stems last in the relative heat of the indoors? A week? Two? I'll tweet out that update.  




Here's how colorful the bark and buds of leafless stems of golden European ash are from mid-Fall to Spring, plus a discussion of the striking rounded tips that many of the stems display.


Here's how exciting this tree's growth is in Spring and Summer.


Here's how exciting this tree's foliage is in the Fall.


Here's how to grow this tree, as well as shots of its colorful stems when they were several years younger.


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