I understand that volcanic ash contains minerals and can make soil more fertile.

But I've also heard the term "fertile ash" in some documentary (I have forgotten in what context). Is that a scientific term, or a misnomer?

The Oxford online dictionary contains the following definition of "fertile":


1 (Of soil or land) producing or capable of producing abundant vegetation or crops: the fertile coastal plain

1.1 Producing many new and inventive ideas: her fertile imagination

1.2 (Of a situation) encouraging a particular activity or feeling: conditions at the time provided fertile ground for revolutionary movements

2 (Of a person, animal, or plant) able to conceive young or produce seed.

2.1 (Of a seed or egg) capable of becoming a new individual.

2.2 Physics (Of nuclear material) able to become fissile by the capture of neutrons.

By that definition, ash alone cannot be described as fertile.

Perhaps a philosophical point, but if it's not valid according to this dictionary, and it's not a scientific term either, then I suppose it's more a question of correct English, so maybe I should reword my title to ask if it's a scientific term.

  • $\begingroup$ Please could you update your question to state where you heard the term? A little context would make it easier to provide a relevant answer. $\endgroup$
    – Pont
    Commented May 11, 2016 at 20:11
  • $\begingroup$ @Pont the term used in the context of the first sentence. $\endgroup$
    – barlop
    Commented May 11, 2016 at 22:03
  • $\begingroup$ The first sentence of what? In what book, article, website, etc. did you come across the term? Can you give a link or a reference to it? $\endgroup$
    – Pont
    Commented May 11, 2016 at 22:20
  • $\begingroup$ @Pont it was a documentary I saw a while back, I don't recall which documentary, and it's not even relevant. There's no question that ash can make soil more fertile. The question is whether it's a scientific term(apparently it isn't), and whether ash can be called fertile ash as it was in that documentary, and what definition it is using. Since it dosn't match the oxfordenglishdictionaries site I quoted from (though maybe OED has a definition it matches, as an answered suggested) $\endgroup$
    – barlop
    Commented May 11, 2016 at 23:47
  • $\begingroup$ two images from what I think is the full oxford dictionary . More complete than the free online one pricescope.com/forum/family-home-health/… i.imgur.com/wdgjxAn.png i.sstatic.net/v1bQw.png $\endgroup$
    – barlop
    Commented Oct 13, 2016 at 7:55

3 Answers 3


'Fertile ash' is not a scientific term, but neither is it a misnomer. Unless the ash is deposited really hot - hot enough for the particles to weld together as 'ignimbrite', then the ash deposit has high porosity and permeability. As soon as water infiltrates, the anhydrous minerals start weathering to clay - generally smectite, or mixed layer clays. This released aqueous magnesium, silica, and low concentrations of other elements crucuial to plants. Thus, both the texture and chemistry of volcanic ash is conducive to plant growth.

When the volcanic island of Surtsey emerged from the Atlantic, just south of Iceland, in the 1970s, plants started to establish themselves in the volcanic ash within a matter of months.

  • $\begingroup$ You say it's not a scientific term, , it's also not valid according to the oxford dictionary. So how is it not a misnomer. Ash when mixed with something else, makes a fertile mixture. But that doesn't make it correct to say fertile ash $\endgroup$
    – barlop
    Commented May 11, 2016 at 14:37
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ A misnomer would be a phrase that suggested something "false to fact". $\endgroup$
    – 42-
    Commented May 21, 2016 at 17:49

There are actually two slightly different ways to interpret the phrase "fertile ash". Both are valid, and you'd need to look at the context of the phrase to determine exactly which is meant (this is why I asked where you came across the term).

Sense 1: "fertile" in the sense of "helping fertility"

The Oxford English Dictionary, under the entry for ‘fertile adj.’, gives:

Causing or tending to promote fertility.

The first citation for this sense of the word is from 1597. Other dictionaries contain similar definitions: the American Heritage Dictionary has "Rich in material needed to sustain plant growth"; dictionary.com has "conducive to productiveness"; and Webster's New World College Dictionary has "causing or helping fertility".

Since, as you acknowledge, ash can make soil more fertile, the collocation "fertile ash" seems perfectly valid. If by "not valid according to the Oxford dictionary" you mean that that specific combination of words isn't listed, you're using a very odd definition of "valid": there are a huge number of adjectives which can reasonably be applied to any noun, and you can't expect every possible combination to be listed in a dictionary.

Sense 2: "fertile" in the sense of "producing vegetation"

Gordon Stanger's answer provides a good explanation of how the term "fertile ash" works under the interpretation of "producing vegetation" in itself, rather than as an admixture: while newly deposited ash is unlikely to support plant growth on its own, a relatively small amount of weathering makes it an excellent substrate for plant colonization. For instance, Parnell and Foster (2012) write:

The physical attributes of volcanic ash allow good drainage, but also high retention of plant-available water, which would have been essential to the earliest plants occupying moist lowland areas. It also provides excellent ‘tilth’, the physical condition related to fitness as a seed-bed. The combination of water and nutrient availability would have made ashes a favourable setting for the seeding of primitive plants.

Of course, at some point in the weathering process it becomes more of an "ash soil" than an "ash" -- as with many categories in Earth Science, the boundary is a little fuzzy. But given the speed with which ash deposits are colonized, I think it's fair to say that they're fertile (in the sense of "producing vegetation") even while still in the "ash" category.

Usage as a scientific term

You can find the term "fertile ash" used in many peer reviewed scientific publications -- for example, May et al. (1985), Eckmeier et al. (2007), Sullivan (1982), and Utkin (2013). Thus, it's a scientific term in the sense of a term which can be (and is) used in scientific writing.

It's not entirely clear to me what you mean by a "scientific term". I agree with Gordon Stanger that it's not a "scientific term", in the sense that you won't find a specific entry for it in a scientific reference work -- it's just an adjective applied to "ash", not a specific, extensively studied topic. Nor is it one of those terms which has a different meaning in a specific scientific context (like "catastrophic" or "domain"). When used in science writing, it could certainly be called a scientific term, but its meaning is the same as when used in everyday language.


"Fertile ash" is not a misnomer; it has at least two reasonable interpretations, in terms of dictionary definitions of its constituent words; and it is a "scientific term" in the sense of a term that can be used in scientific publications.

Responses to comments

can you include a screenshot of the definition?

I'm unsure how this improves the answer, but am happy to oblige:

OED definition

(If you meant that I should screenshot the entire entry, I'm afraid that's not practical -- it's hundreds of words long and thousands of pixels tall, and would add enormous bulk to this answer without providing any relevant additional information!)

it's not listed on dictionary.cambridge.org for example nor is it listed on the oxforddictionaries link in my question

Many dictionary publishers don't make their most complete dictionaries freely available online. As far as I know, all the dictionaries available on CUP's site are for learners of English, and thus aren't particularly extensive. OUP's free offering is is (I think) based on their 1-volume Oxford Dictionary of English, rather than the full Oxford English Dictionary. They're certainly good starting points, but don't expect them to be exhaustive.


Eckmeier, E., Rösch, M., Ehrmann, O., Schmidt, M. W., Schier, W., & Gerlach, R. (2007). Conversion of biomass to charcoal and the carbon mass balance from a slash-and-burn experiment in a temperate deciduous forest. The Holocene, 17(4), 539-542.

May, P. H., Anderson, A. B., Balick, M. J., & Frazão, J. M. F. (1985). Subsistence benefits from the babassu palm (Orbignya martiana). Economic Botany, 39(2), 113-129.

Parnell, J., & Foster, S. (2012). Ordovician ash geochemistry and the establishment of land plants. Geochemical transactions, 13(1), 7.

Sullivan, A. P. (1982). Mogollon Agrarian Ecology: An Appraisal and a New Model. The Kiva, 1-15.

Utkin, V. P. (2013). Shear structural paragenesis and its role in continental rifting of the East Asian margin. Russian Journal of Pacific Geology, 7(3), 167-188.

  • $\begingroup$ do you have a link to the OED online? I was using oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/fertile and it didn't mention promoting fertility $\endgroup$
    – barlop
    Commented May 11, 2016 at 22:02
  • $\begingroup$ @barlop Here's the link to the OED definition, but you may need a subscription to see it. $\endgroup$
    – Pont
    Commented May 11, 2016 at 22:15
  • $\begingroup$ can you include a screenshot of the definition? And is this quite an unusual definition, given that it's not listed on dictionary.cambridge.org for example nor is it listed on the oxforddictionaries link in my question $\endgroup$
    – barlop
    Commented May 11, 2016 at 23:51
  • $\begingroup$ here is a link to somebody that took a copy/paste of the OED pricescope.com/forum/family-home-health/… But "promote fertility", that'd mean that anybody even an old lady, that walks around with a board saying "have children", is fertile, because she is "promoting/encouraging fertility" by that definition. Even a poster that says "have children" would be a fertile poster , by that definition. $\endgroup$
    – barlop
    Commented May 12, 2016 at 21:10
  • $\begingroup$ If you were to somehow rub the soil off the ash, then would it no longer be fertile? How is George saying the ash "produces" vegetation rather George does explicitly say in his scientific paragraph, "Thus, both the texture and chemistry of volcanic ash is conducive to plant growth." $\endgroup$
    – barlop
    Commented Oct 13, 2016 at 6:54

The ash(which contains minerals), is, by virtue of its containing minerals, fertile in the sense of 1.2 from the oxford online dictionary quoted in the question, "encouraging a particular activity or feeling" Sure that line does say 'fertile ground' as it says "encouraging a particular activity or feeling: conditions at the time provided fertile ground for revolutionary movements" But that usage of fertile could be applied to ash that contains minerals.

Not fertile in the sense of producing, but fertile in the sense of encouraging. Which is also a sense mentioned in the OED/Oxford English Dictionary quoted by Point "causing or tending to promote fertility"

  • $\begingroup$ though by the encouraging/promoting definition, perhaps an infertile old lady carrying a banner saying "have children" could be described as fertile! $\endgroup$
    – barlop
    Commented Sep 11, 2018 at 9:12

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