This Native Plant: Faxinus americana

By Sonja Javarone

We know it. One may have grown in the back­yard of our child­hood home. It is a nice tree.” It doesn’t have one sin­gle out­stand­ing fea­ture to cap­ture our atten­tion and asso­ciate it with a name. We know the lilac and mag­no­lia, but our back­yard tree may still be name­less. Let us get acquaint­ed with the white or Amer­i­can ash, Frax­i­nus amer­i­cana, a real­ly nice tree.”

What do Lit­tle Lea­guers, King Arthur, and Bent­wood chairs have in com­mon? You may have guessed – ash is the con­nec­tion. Ash wood is elas­tic, shock resis­tant, and strong. It is tough, yet bend­able and light­weight. The unique char­ac­ter­is­tics of the wood have yield­ed a pletho­ra of uses, includ­ing base­ball bats, ten­nis rack­et frames, hock­ey sticks, polo mal­lets, spears, tool han­dles, oars, scythes, hay­forks, plows, fur­ni­ture, bowl­ing alleys, church pews, and air­planes. Some­times the wood has unique grain pat­terns which are used for veneers and inte­ri­or fin­ish­ing. As fire­wood, how­ev­er, ash is mediocre. Also ash is not suit­able for out­door uses as it does not hold up in con­tact with damp ground. For the herbal­ist, a white ash leaf rubbed on a bee sting or mos­qui­to bite sup­pos­ed­ly relieves the itch­ing. It does appear that ash has touched all of our lives.

Accord­ing to Algo­nquian Indi­an folk­lore, an arrow shot into an ash tree cre­at­ed the human species. The Norse­men and Greeks have sim­i­lar leg­ends. Per­haps the stuff of leg­ends has to do with the fact that most ash­es are large trees and that their wood was asso­ci­at­ed with weapons and tools. The white ash, although non­de­script in many respects, makes a large pleas­ant­ly shaped dom­i­nant fea­ture on the land­scape, whether in the nat­ur­al envi­ron­ment or cul­tured. The white ash and oth­er ash­es world­wide must have touched the spir­it of those ear­ly Indi­ans, Norse­men, and Greeks.

About six­ty species of ash are found world­wide in the North Tem­per­ate Zone. Each species has its own dif­fer­en­ti­at­ing char­ac­ter­is­tics but all have cer­tain traits in com­mon. Ash­es are relat­ed to olives, priv­et, lilacs, jas­mine, Chio­nan­thus, and for­syth­ia. To be spe­cif­ic, the ash­es belong to the olive fam­i­ly, Oleaceae, many of which are warm tem­per­ate or trop­i­cal species. In a sense, most ash­es are north coun­try cousins, lack­ing the petaled flow­ers, fra­grance, and desir­able fruits of oth­er olive fam­i­ly mem­bers. The wood, how­ev­er, does con­tain an oil sim­i­lar to olive oil. White ash is a good cop­pic­ing species – it sprouts from the stumps of fall­en trees. The roots of the cut trees regen­er­ate shoots at a remark­able rate. Young fast grow­ing trees pro­vide the desired sap­wood sought by most ash wood users. The tree also trans­plants eas­i­ly and is pH and sun tol­er­ant. Land­scap­ers espe­cial­ly look to the white ash for fast growth in prob­lem areas. 

To dis­tin­guish white ash, Frax­i­nus amer­i­cana, look for these tell-tale mark­ers. The com­pound leaves are pin­nate with five to nine (usu­al­ly sev­en) wavy edged and stalked leaflets. The leaves are green above and whitish green downy sur­faced beneath. The leaves are oppo­site each oth­er on the stout twigs. Leaf scars are cres­cent-shaped to semi­cir­cu­lar. The flow­ers are dioe­cious, with sex­es on sep­a­rate trees. The flow­ers are petal­less and appear before the leaves. The fruit is a sin­gle-winged sama­ra, one to two inch­es long.

The white ash cov­ers har­di­ness zones three to nine and has done well in Europe, as few of our tree species have. The native dis­tri­b­u­tion extends from Nova Sco­tia to Flori­da and west into Min­neso­ta and Texas. The best growth is in well-drained, moist and loamy soil. It will exceed twen­ty feet in twen­ty years, rapid growth for a hard­wood species. White ash in the vir­gin for­est sup­pos­ed­ly reached 175 feet. One of the largest present­ly is locat­ed in Pal­isades, New York, and is 95 feet with a trunk cir­cum­fer­ence of 25.3 feet.

Summer 2019

Volume 37 , Number 2

Share this

The Latest from Landis

Mar 18, 2024

Landis Signature Spring Plant Book and Bake Sale

You don’t want to miss this! read more

Mar 18, 2024

Landis Houseplant Swap!

If you’re a houseplant lover, this event is for you! read more

Mar 11, 2024 | Anita Sanchez

A Shallow Dive into Vernal Pools

Spring is the time for water. First the icicles start to drip. Then the streams... read more

Mar 11, 2024 | Sam McClary

Never Underestimate Nature: Rejuvenating Old Apple Trees

While driving along country roads in the autumn, watching the falling leaves – I suddenly... read more

Mar 11, 2024 | Shayne Mitchell

News and Muse from the Bluebird Trail

I think it is safe to say that the Eastern bluebird is the favorite bird... read more

Mar 11, 2024 | Sue Tricario

Landis Membership Away from Home

A membership at the Landis Arboretum is your passport to over 360 public gardens and... read more

News Archive