Tree of the Month, November 2022

White Ash, American Ash

Fraxinus americana 

by Martin (Mort) Schmidt

for Simply Living

Dying White Ash tree located at Serpent Mound, Ohio

White Ash is the stuff of baseball bats, and would be a good candidate for the ideal tree, especially when considering its wood. Harder than pine, softer than oak, ash is hard enough to wear well, but soft enough to work readily – an important consideration in the days before power tools. And it makes great firewood. Unfortunately, ashes in the Midwest are being decimated by the emerald ash borer, and healthy mature trees are now rare. 

Ash is the A in MADBuck: Maple, Ash, Dogwood, & Buckeye, the trees with opposite leaves, buds, and branches. The other large Ohio trees have alternately-arranged leaves, as illustrated below. Ashes in winter are recognizable by their stout, pitchfork-like opposite branches. (Stout twigs are typical of trees with large leaves, including compound leaves). Ash leaves are pinnately-compound, meaning that multiple leaflets share a stem, and that the leaflets are attached at different points along the stem. Dogwoods and most maples have simple leaves that do not share a stem. Buckeye leaves are palmately-compound, i.e., the leaflets are attached at a single point on the stem. So the presence of opposite, pinnately-compound leaves suggest either ash or the one odd Maple, Boxelder (May 2002 Tree of the Month). To summarize the MADBuck features:

  • Maple – simple leaves, except for Boxelder, which has distinctly green twigs 
  • Ash – pinnately-compound leaves
  • Dogwood – simple leaves
  • Buckeye – palmately-compound leaves

So an Ohio tree with opposite branching and pinnately-compound leaves is probably an ash. White Ash leaves have 7, or occasionally 5 or 9 pointed oval (lanceolate) leaflets, 3 to 5 inches long. Like Silver Maple, White Ash derives its common name from the lighter color of its leaves’ undersides. In winter, White Ash can be distinguished from Green Ash by its distinctively U-shaped leaf scars. Because ashes have opposite leaves, you can flip the twig over and see a second U-shaped scar: a Double U, like the “W” in White. Green Ash leaf scars are more D-shaped. 

Clockwise from upper left: Alternate versus opposite. Pitchfork-like ash branches. Pinnate versus palmate. White Ash compound leaf. Underside of White Ash leaflet. White Ash leaf scar. Green Ash leaf scar. 

White Ash is Ohio’s largest native ash and typically grows to a height of about 80 feet. Ohio’s champion White Ash, located in Highland County, has a height of 103 feet, a crown diameter of 81 feet, and a trunk circumference of 212 inches (5.6 feet in diameter).  The tallest White Ash in the United States listed in the Monumental Trees website is in North Carolina and is 164 feet tall.

Mature White Ash is easily recognized by the diamond pattern in its bark. Baseball fans might remember that baseball bats were traditionally made of White Ash, and baseball is played on a diamond. White Ash fruits consist of samaras – wafer seeds. The samara is roughly 5 times longer than wide and has a seed at the end, like a canoe paddle with the handle cut off. Ash seeds resemble maple seeds, but maple samaras occur in right/left pairs, while ash samaras are more or less identical and hang together in clumps. White Ash is predominantly dioecious, meaning that male and female flowers usually occur on separate trees. Only female trees bear seeds. 

Fraxinus americana occurs in most of the eastern United States, and hardly anywhere else. White Ash thrives in moist, but not continuously wet, rich bottom lands, and does well in full sun. In Ohio, Similar species include Green Ash (Fraxinus pennsylvanica), Blue Ash (F. quadrangulata), and Black Ash (F. nigra). As discussed above, White Ash leaflets have lighter undersides than the other ashes, and a more U-shaped leaf scar than Green Ash (aka Red Ash in older literature). White Ash has round buds and twigs, unlike the square buds of Blue Ash (hence the Latin name, F. quadrangulata). Black Ash inhabits wetter, swampier areas than the other ashes, and is smaller. Ohio’s champion Black Ash is only 41 feet tall. Black Ash leaves typically have 9 leaflets and the bark is scaly, lacking the distinct diamond pattern of White Ash. 

Unfortunately, a small green beetle from China known as the emerald ash borer (EAB), was detected in Michigan in 2002, and has destroyed most of the mature ash trees in the Midwest. According to the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), EAB have been detected in 35 states. The EAB bores into into the tree and meanders around eating the inner bark. These meandering tunnels, or galleries, girdle the tree and cut off its flow of nutrients. Evidence of EAB damage is seen in the distinctive D-shaped entry holes, the galleries beneath the bark, and of course, dead ash trees. Chemical treatment can reduce damage, but costs hundreds of dollars per tree, and must be applied early and repeated every two years. There is some hope of eliminating the insects by introducing one or several small wasps that feed on EAB larvae or eggs, but the effort to prevent EAB spread through quarantining has been abandoned.

White Ash lumber is superior to other ashes, and the trees are larger, but they’re often sold together as White Ash. White Ash has a Janka Hardness of 1,320 lbf and a density of 0.67 g/cc, according to the Wood Database. For comparison, Black Walnut has the median hardness in my list of 68 Ohio trees of 1,010 lbf, and a density of 0.61 g/cc. Ash has very good springiness and shock resistance, making it the traditional wood for baseball bats. Hickory has greater strength and shock resistance, but it’s too heavy for most batters – unless you’re Babe Ruth, whose hickory bat is on display at the Louisville Slugger museum and factory. (He also used oversized White Ash bats). Hickory makes great ax and hammer handles, since they’re subject to lots of shock. But rake and shovel handles are less subject to impact, and they’re longer, so the additional weight of hickory makes ash preferable. 

Clockwise from upper left: White Ash bark. White Ash seeds. Entry hole of EAB. Galleries left by EAB. Ash trees killed by EAB. Ring porosity characteristic of White Ash.

Ash, like oak and hickory, is ring-porous, i.e., the large pores are aligned along the rings. Ring-porous woods readily split parallel to grain, making ash a poor choice for many purposes, such as wagon-wheel hubs. Boring holes into an ash hub at various angles and driving spokes into the holes would split the hub. Split-resistant woods such as elm made better hubs. But ironically, ash, oak, and hickory’s tendency to split parallel to grain are their strength. Splitting out boards prior to woodworking guarantees that the grain is perfectly parallel to the board’s length. Sawn lumber – the only type available in modern markets – has grain running at an angle to length on some boards, and this is where handles, chair rungs, etc., invariably break. So, ash, oak, and hickory boards would be split out of logs to reduce the risk of later breakage. And splitting was vastly easier than sawing parallel to length in the days of hand tools. This is why long-grained hardwoods, especially ash, oak, and hickory were used for long, slender objects, such as Windsor chair backs, boat oars, and mallet handles. Short-grained hardwoods, such as maple, beech, and apple were used for more or less square or circular objects, such as cutting boards, bowls, and mallet heads

Ash’s parallel grain, strength, and ease in bending also make it ideal for basket making. Modern baskets are often made of maple or other fine-grained woods that sand down smoother, but they’re more likely to fail than ash. Ash splits easily and burns well when green, making it excellent firewood. But ash has low rot resistance in contact with soil. Because White Ash thrives in a variety of conditions and grows more rapidly than other woods of similar hardness, it’s well suited to tree farming.  

The traditional Gaelic sport of hurling is played with ash sticks (but not American Ash) and a small ball. Games can be quite tumultuous and the game is sometimes called, “the clash of the ash”. Tennis rackets, snow skis, and before the advent of fiberglass, vaulting poles, also were made of ash. Noel Kingsbury’s Hidden Histories – TREES, reports that ash was used in the construction of de Havilland Mosquito airplanes in World War II. Kingsbury, and others, describe the once-widespread use of ash in Europe for coppicing and pollarding, in which a tree is cut down and allowed to send up shoots from the stump. When the shoots reach the desired size, they’re cut for use as poles, firewood, etc. 

According to Fred Hageneder’s The Meaning of Trees, ash was formerly coppiced in the Alps so that livestock could browse on the foliage. He also indicates that ash samaras “make a delicious addition to spring salads”. 

William Werthner’s Some American Trees, An Intimate Study of Native Ohio Trees discusses some folklore of ash trees. It says that ash trees were believed to attract lightning, hence the saying, “Avoid an ash, it courts a flash”. There was also a belief that snakes avoided ash trees and their shadows, as well as leaves and branches. Werthner’s boyhood experiments of surrounding snakes with rings of ash leaves proved otherwise. According to Diana Wells’ Lives of the Trees, an Uncommon History, ash leaves mixed with wine were once used to treat snake bites. Wells also says that some claimed as late as 1876 that a child afflicted with hernia could be cured by passing them through a split ash tree. Don’t try this at home. 

The Native American Ethnobotany Database reports many uses for White Ash among the Indians. Many used ash to make spear and tool handles, snow shoes, fiber, and baskets. Medicinal uses include bark or leaf infusions for treating gynecological problems, venereal diseases, gastrointestinal issues, and snake bite. Decoctions of White Ash bark was also used to induce vomiting and diarrhea in order to cleanse the bowels. 

White Ash was a popular street tree because it tolerates pollution, it doesn’t drop a lot of messy leaves or fruits, and it’s forgiving of soil, air, and light conditions. Regrettably, this most useful tree that has no enemies is rapidly vanishing from our yards and forests.

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