Fraxinus nigra (black ash) is a species of ash native to much of eastern Canada and the northeastern United States, from western Newfoundland west to southeastern Manitoba, and south to Illinois and northern Virginia. Formerly abundant, as of 2014 the species is threatened with near total extirpation throughout its range, as a result of infestation by a parasitic insect known as the emerald ash borer.
Black ash is a medium-sized deciduous tree reaching 15–20 m (exceptionally 26 m) tall with a trunk up to 60 cm (exceptionally 160 cm) diameter. The bark is grey, thick and corky even on young trees, becoming scaly and fissured with age. The winter buds are dark brown to blackish, with a velvety texture. The leaves are opposite, pinnate, with 7–13 (most often 9) leaflets; each leaf is 20–45 cm long, the leaflets 7–16 cm long and 2.5–5 cm broad, with a finely toothed margin. The leaflets are sessile, directly attached to the rachis without a petiolule. The flowers are produced in spring shortly before the new leaves, in loose panicles; they are inconspicuous with no petals, and are wind-pollinated. The fruit is a samara 2.5–4.5 cm long comprising a single seed 2 cm long with an elongated apical wing 1.5–2 cm long and 6–8 mm broad.
Ecology and conservation status
Black ash commonly occurs in swamps, often with the closely related green ash. Its fall foliage is yellow. Black ash is one of the first trees to lose its leaves in the fall. It is very closely related to Manchurian ash, and will easily hybridize with it. Some consider the two to be geographic isolates of each other.
The species was considered abundant and its survival of little concern prior to the invasion of the emerald ash borer, first detected in North America in 2002. However, since that time this invasive insect has spread throughout most of the tree's range, and within a few years black ash is expected to be all but extirpated; a similar fate awaits green ash. In 2014, a U.S. Forest Service agent estimated that "ninety-nine percent of the ashes in North America are probably going to die." blue ash and white ash are only slightly less affected.
This wood is used by Native Americans of the North East for making baskets and other devices. The Shakers also made extensive use of the Black Ash for creating baskets. Also called Basket Ash, Brown Ash, Swamp Ash, hoop ash, and water ash. It is also a popular wood for making electric guitars and basses, due to its good resonant qualities.
Creating basket strips
Black ash is unique among all trees in North America in that it does not have fibers connecting the growth rings to each other. This is a useful property for basket makers. By pounding on the wood with a mallet, the weaker spring wood layer is crushed, allowing the tougher and darker summer wood layer to be peeled off in long strips. The long strips are trimmed, cleaned, and used in basket weaving. Indigenous peoples of the Northeastern Woodlands also make bark baskets from black ash, traditionally used for berry-gathering.
- Germplasm Resources Information Network: Fraxinus nigra
- New Brunswick tree and shrub: Fraxinus nigra
- Virtual Herbarium of the Chicago Region: Fraxinus nigra
- USDA Forest Service Silvics Manual: Fraxinus nigra
- "After the Trees Disappear," New York Times, 30 June 2014.
- Guitar Wood FAQ - Wood Types & Tones