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The Ashes

Nature Bulletin No. 255 Forest Preserve District of Cook County

February 3, 1951 William Erickson, President

Roberts Mann Supt. of Conservation David H. Thompson Senior Naturalist


Most city people know nothing about an ash tree nor would they recognize one if they saw it. Although an ash is easily transplanted and grow rather rapidly, it is infrequently used as a shade tree or street tree. Perhaps this is because they bear large quantities of winged seeds that litter the ground for some distance around them; or because they are among the last trees to put on their leaves in spring and among the first to shed them in autumn. Perhaps it is because they have thick stubby twigs and rather sparse foliage.

The Ashes, however are among our most useful forest trees. Only eight other kinds, principally the oaks, maples, sweet gum, yellow poplars and birch, furnish greater amounts of hardwoods used by the lumber industry. Of 50 or more species known, there are 17 in North America. We have 6 in Illinois but the Biltmore Ash and the Pumpkin or Swell-butted Ash occur only in the southern portion. The Mountain Ash and the Prickly Ash are not really ashes nor related to them.

The White Ash is the most widely distributed, most numerous and most valuable of our native species, all of which have compound leaves growing in opposite pairs along the twigs. Each leaf consists of a stout midrib with pointed leaflets set in opposite pairs along it, and an odd one at its tip.

The White Ash usually has 7 leaflets which are dark green above, pale green beneath, and are attached to a midrib by a short stem. The tall straight trunks of the older trees are covered with brown thick bark having rather narrow ridges, separated by deep fissures into a regular diamond-shaped pattern. The fruits or "keys", which mature in late summer and are carried by the wind, grow in crowded clusters. Each key has a wing 1 to 2 inches long, shaped like a canoe paddle, with the seed at the handle end.

The close-grained wood of the white ash is notable for its strength, toughness and elasticity. The Indian used it for bows and arrows, canoe paddles, sleds, cradle boards and the bent frame of snow shoes. The white settlers valued it for axles and tongues of wagons, plow handles, and the bent bows for tops of wagons and carriages. More recently, it was used for the tops of automobiles and the bent wood in the wings and fuselages of airplanes. Today it is extensively used for tool handles, ladders, baseball bats, oars and athletic equipment such as tennis racquets, hockey sticks, skis, snowshoes, toboggans and javelins.

The Red Ash and a variety of it, called the Green Ash, are distinguished from the white Ash by the fact that their leaves are narrower, more toothed along the edges, and are bright green or yellow- green on both sides. They do not grow as large as the white ash and their wood is more coarse-grained and more brittle. There are other small differences in the seeds and bark. The red ash, however, has fuzz on its twigs, the midrib of its leaves, and the underside of its leaflets; whereas the green ash, like the white ash, has none.

The Black Ash is found only in wet rich ground. Its sharply toothed leaflets are attached directly, without a stem, to the midrib of the leaf, and its trunk has grayish bark separated into thin plates resembling those of a white oak. Its wood is softer and weaker than that of the other ashes. The Indians called it the "basket tree" because, by pounding a peeled log with mauls or clubs, they could separate the wood into thin slats, each year's growth, which were woven into baskets. The Blue Ash, much smaller but less common, can be identified by its twigs which appear square because of 4 small corky ridges. The Indians and pioneers made a blue dye by steeping its inner bark in water. Only Horse Chestnuts, Ashes and Maples - the HAM Trio - have opposite twigs.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Due to the introduction of the Emerald Ash Borer from NE Asia, the population of mature ash trees throughout the woods has severely diminished. Yet, every year, hundreds of young Ash trees are seen sprouting in the woods. It appears the insect doesn't attack a tree until a certain size - giving it sufficient time to produce and drop viable seed. We have not lost the species yet.

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