The Ash tree is one of the most important riparian plants in North America. In Eastern North America there are, or were, three common species in the Fraxinus genus, the White, Green, and Black Ash. In the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, Green Ash is one of the most prolific trees along streams, river bottoms, and wetlands. Unfortunately, Ash trees are disappearing from the American landscape. All three of the aforementioned ash tree species are critically endangered because of the nonnative Emerald Ash Borer.
These trees thrive near water and even tolerate the harsh conditions of urban environments like road salt and heavy traffic. They have been extensively planted along urban streets in America and abroad.
Ash trees are special because they can restore natural systems. They readily colonize riparian areas where their roots help stabilize stream banks, their leaves feed both aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems, and their branches provide shade and nesting sites for many animals.
When we fenced the cows out of the Middle River on our farm, Mother Nature planted Green Ash trees by the hundreds in the buffer area between the pasture and river.
The trees were so thick I had to thin them out. We call these trees pioneer trees because they can populate an area on their own; you don’t have to plant them as long as source trees are nearby.
Growth Performance of Many Animals Best With Ash Leaves
Ash leaves are a critical food source for American frogs. The growth performance of tadpoles is better with a diet of Green Ash leaves than with Red Maple leaves according to research published in Freshwater Biology. As Green Ash disappears from the landscape, Red Maple fills in. Tadpoles and perhaps many other species that trive on Green Ash leaves will be negatively affected.
Both White and Green Ash leaves are some of the most nutritious and important foods for leaf-cutting and shredding aquatic insects. For example, two species of Mayflies studied in White Clay Creek in Pennsylvania grew best on a diet of White Ash leaves. Some Craneflies and Stoneflies also showed better growth performance on White Ash leaves than on other species of tree leaves studied, according to Dr. Bern Sweeney‘s research published by the Academy of Natural Sciences.
Ash Wood Is Unique and Has Quite a History
Ash wood has some special qualities. For guitars, it is soft enough to work easily and has large open pores that according to the Fender website make it “remarkably resonant and sweet-sounding, with clearly chiming highs, defined midrange, and strong low end.”
Leo Fender introduced the Telecaster electric guitar in 1951. Made from the wood from both White and Green Ash, this guitar had a new sound that broke the barriers in rock, country, and blues music. When you hear the sweet-talking guitar sounds from Keith Richards, Elvis Presley, Eric Clapton, B.B. King, and Buck Owens, they were probably coming out of a Fender Telecaster.
Preferred Wood For Baseball Bats
Ash wood has another special quality. When a baseball hits it, it compresses and sends the ball away with a “trampoline effect.” That’s why many of the famous Louisville Slugger baseball bats are made from Ash wood. White Ash is preferred but Green Ash is often marketed as White Ash.
This wood is also popular in flooring, millwork, boxes, crates, baskets, and tool handles.
Emerald Ash Borer Discovered in Michigan in 2002
First discovered in Michigan in 2002, the Emerald Ash Borer has caused the destruction of almost all Black Ash trees and is moving south rapidly, destroying all Ash trees in its path.
Several years ago I noticed some of our Green Ash trees dying. Later, I learned that the Virginia Department of Forestry was no longer recommending planting Green Ash along streams. Too bad; Green Ash was one of my “go-to” trees along hundreds of miles of streamside buffers when we fenced cattle out of streams during my tenure at USDA. It was a first-string player in our restoration of the streams that feed the Chesapeake Bay. It’s one of the fastest-growing riparian trees and is one of the first trees to emerge from a tree shelter. But no more. The Emerald Ash Borers are killing the trees.
How the Borer Kills the Tree
The adult Emerald Ash Borer lays her eggs in the crevices of the bark. When the eggs hatch, the larvae bore into the cambium layer of the tree and consume the tree’s vascular system, thus preventing the tree from transporting nutrients and water.
I Lament Its Demise
In a single lifetime, Ash trees will be gone from the landscape as we know it. Like the American Chestnut, once the greatest tree in America, whose population was minimized by a foreign fungus, and the Eastern Hemlock, being killed by the Adelgid Aphid, the Ash’s population has been brought down by an invasive, foreign species.
I feel a sense of hopelessness in our never-ending struggle with invasive species. Has invasiveness joined so many other human induced vectors on the exponential growth curve, also known as the Malthusian “J” curve? Human population, atmospheric CO2 concentration, extreme weather events, algae blooms … invasiveness—it seems like exponential growth to me.
Hope for a Remnant Population
But we cannot give up. With hope, dedication, and science we can ovecome the devestation from the lack of Ash trees. Like the invasive Musk Thistle population on our farm, we have it under control. And like the American Chestnut tree, there are dedicated scientists, foresters, and volunteers that keep planting seeds of hope that one day the tree will be restored to a sustainable population.
We have hope that we can sustain a remnant population by using systemic insecticide treatments, biological controls, and selecting for trees with high tannin content. Ash species with high tannin content are resistant to the borer.
Diversity Is the Key for Sustainability
The lesson in all this is that a diversity of native trees is paramount for forest and stream health. Diversity is the key to sustain just about everything. Dr. Bern Sweeney, Distinguished Research Scientist at the Stroud Water Research Center recently wrote, “The destruction caused by the Emerald Ash Borer is a wake-up call that we ought to value each and every species in our forest and avoid any and all carelessness that might lead to the demise of any given species. For the loss of each species in a forest is analogous to death by a thousand cuts for the ecosystem.”
The Answer—Plant More Trees
The video below, produced by The Downstream Project for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation shows the importance of planting trees along streams and features the late Libby Norris.
Great post Thank you!
I knew about Louisville Sluggers but not about Telecasters!
You are right; we can’t give up hope or desire to try to work through these crises.
Thanks for your post….
And that is a fine video!
Thanks, as always, George. We miss Libby.
This species has a certain historic role in the game of baseball. All the hitting records are influenced by the Ash bat that won’t be available real soon relatively speaking. It seems some hickory and maple are being tried as alternatives to Ash. I’ve wondered if Cucumber Magnolia would work? This ecological destruction is very depressing for those of us that live within and from the forests as I do. We can’t give up and I haven’t, because salvaging the dead and dying ash is a big part of what I’m doing for a living these days, on my own land at the moment. The irony there is that the price of the wood as raw logs delivered to local mills as the commercial market is weak. The trees that are left are even more critical to the ecosystem in preserving diversity. So light touch harvesting based upon our version of “Restorative Forestry” using “worst first” single tree selection, skilled directional felling and low impact extraction with modern log archs and animal power may be more important now than ever in human history. We must do whatever we can to keep invasive insects and botanicals out of our ecosystem. I consider this the most challenging aspect of natural resource management in our future. Thanks as always for writing about real issues Robert.
Jason, your words echo throughout my thoughts. So true, and sad that you, a logger that has to take the dead bodies of the forest to the market. I would feel as though I was the funeral director as your horses carry out the bodies. Carry on, my friend, as we lament together about the loss of the Ash, the Chestnut, the Elm, the Hemlock . . .
Really enjoyed your piece on ash trees. Thank you!
You are welcome, Anita.
I have a large ash tree that is nearly dead in the tree row along my driveway. I used to look forward to its leaves changing color each fall as it put on a tremendous golden display. Alas it is just holding on and most of the larger branches have succumbed. A while back I decided not to cut it down in hopes that maybe it would provide habitat in the coming years for cavity nesting birds. Last evening I was walking down my lane and was happy to hear baby birds begging. When I looked up I was pleased to see an adult house wren coming out of a cavity and on her way to go find more insects. They successfully fledged another brood earlier this season out of a bird box I had near my patio but I get more enjoyment seeing them nest in a natural cavity. Earlier this spring I had a bluebird nesting in the same tree. Can’t wait to see who will use it next spring.
Katie, thanks for stopping in. Yes, the dead bodies will be a treasure for cavity nesters and woodpeckers. Maybe a pair of Red-headed Woodpeckers will nest in your tree.
Yes, wouldn’t that be wonderful. Will still be missing this tree (and countless others) in all its glory.
Hey Bobby: I’m mourning loss of ash trees too. Green and white ash were among the species lost when a whole section of the arboretum at Blue Ridge Community College was cut down to provide room for a fitness center and a parking lot. They were already in decline, and I’d spotted the emerald ash borer on campus, so they were sunk anyway. I loved our “ash grove”, and it had been thriving. It was a favorite song in my youth.
I did not know about the interesting association with amphibian health and successful metamorphosis. Thanks for providing the link to Freshwater Biology article. It’s interesting that a few of the foreign invasive wetland species aided success more than red maple. I couldn’t get access to find out what they were, but there is little good news associated with invasives!
Thanks for the very interesting post. I look forward to everything that emerges from your fertile brain! Anne
Anne, good to hear from you as always. Too bad about some of the scientific journals that do not allow full access. Knowledge and information should be free.
Bobby: great post, and more than a little sad – as one who planted a lot of green ash over the years. there is a glimmer of hope, regarding potential ash resistance to the borers, from the folks at PSU:
It was wonderful to see Libby in the video. Thanks!
Matt, good to hear from you and thanks for stopping in. Your comments ring so true. We have planted so many Ash trees in our journey to restore streams.
Good stuff yet again, Bobby. The extirpation of native trees by exotic pests is increasingly inevitable given the global economy; the question, as you rightly set forth, is how best to deal with it. Sometimes the importation of predatory insects that feast on invasive sapsuckers seems the obvious answer, but then those added exotics will naturally evolve to prey on other, native species. It’s like in Hawaii, where mongooses were imported to tamp down the runaway European rats that had arrived w/ Cook’s initial contact, and are now devastating native birds and mammals. To undo the harms that we’ve inflicted through our boundless intercontinental ambitions we need to recognize the problems, make longterm rational decisions about countering them, and then proceed in a thoughtful, deliberative manner so as to promote, as best we can, the ecological resurgence of what was there before us.
Kudos, Bill. Thanks for your very in-depth comments. Well said.
As always, thanks for this interesting, informative and passionate blog. Even its brilliant title “Getting more on the ground” has become our mantra on our small wildlife farm. Maybe we can do at least 2 helpful things, whether we have little or lots of land – plant many species of mainly native plants and elect politicians who care as much about our planet as we do.
We have many ash trees, some planted, some volunteers. Some have died, some look sick and some are thriving. Can we measure the tannin content of this last group? That is such a fascinating idea.
Carol, thanks for sending me an email that there were no comments. Let me know if you receive this reply. The Asian species of Ash are high in tannin content and are resistant the EAB. We have the same here on the farm. Many young Ash trees are not infected yet but I think their days are limited. VDOF injected two specimen trees with insecticide hoping they would withstand the onslaught of the invasion.
It appears we must kiss our ash goodbye…not trying to be flip, but is it really possible to defeat the ash borer? Good read and I am always happy to share your informative posts.
Thanks, Charlie. I believe our best bet is to breed and select ash trees for higher tannin content. Ash trees from Asia are resistant to the borer for this reason. That’s where the borer came from in the first place.
Bobby, this posting really resonated with me, as I live not far away and am doing all I can to both reforest and use native plants to do it. Would you be willing to pot (and /or get assistance to pot) some of your volunteer ash trees that I could transport to my property for planting? I have 20 acres and roughly 1000′ of frontage on the Buffalo Branch.
David, Why do you want to plant Green Ash? You should plant other native trees such as Swamp White Oak, Persimmon, American Plum, and River Birch.
Hello Bobby! I suggested using the volunteer green ash because I understood that to be the general thread of your posting; not only are they dying out, but you have some growing under one of your trees that you more or less have to “do something about.” Having said that, I have Oak, Persimmon and Plum growing but (of course) only limited amounts of Ash. I also have an extensive overstory of Sycamore.
Thanks, David. Kudos on the trees. The VDOF selected two middle-aged Green Ash at the farm to inject with a systemic insecticide to hopefully ride out the invasion. The rest of the Ash will probably not make it.
I am dealing with the loss of at least 150 trees on our farm, more than heart breaking. Curious how to salvage, at a minimum, the firewood value. My guess is that it is best to get the trees down, cut, and split as quickly as possible—a monumental task. Not sure how much time I have. (Trust the comment notification is back online.)
I think of all the ash-lined roadways. This is a huge liability and expense for homeowners and highway departments. I know there were some bills being introduced to allow a tax credit for tree removal but can’t find the status.
Spot on, Bill. And, you are correct. The sooner the better but I would leave a few for the cavity nesters, such as the Red-headed Woodpecker. I’m not sure about the tax credit.
Between reading your book and your blogs, you are keeping me fired up to battle on against the pig-headedness and greed devastating this lovely little planet. Don’t have any ash (that I’m aware of – and I’m always looking for trees I don’t know) here in my forest in Louisa but now wondering if I shouldn’t look into planting some – if I’m out of borer zone. I also didn’t know about telecasters but have sure swung a lot of ash at baseballs in my life. Keep up the good work, great to see y’all at Red Wing again.
Randy, thanks for your kind words and for taking the time to read the book and the latest blog. Thank you. You are in the borer zone so I would not recommend planting any ash species. Hope to see you again at Red Wing next year or sooner.
I think it’s important for a the environment to not lose its diversity, and us as a society should not let the ash tree die out like we did with the american chestnut. diversity is the key to sustainability. It’s important to look at a tree as a source of food or shelter for many species in an ecosystem. The ash tree is a durable and useful tree that i think should continue to be planted. The growth of ash tree can help other trees native to the area flourish as well. Maybe, when I have my own area of land I can grow ash trees!
Hello! This is a really interesting and fascinating read. My name is Ashley, and the meaning of my name derives from an ash tree meadow. I didn’t know that these trees were this cool until I’ve been reading up on them recently! I’m really glad I came across this article. I’d really like to know how to plant and take care of an ash tree, they really are beautiful and seem to be quite useful. It would be super sad to lose these trees as a whole. If you could reach out to me and let me know more about planting them that would be awesome. Thanks!
Thanks for your comments, Ashley. I’ll send you an email. Ash trees grow rapidly but you will need to treat them for the borer.
I work for Rainbow TreeCare in Minnesota and spent my entire summer helping to preserve these gorgeous trees. I loved this article very much.
Samuel, thanks so much for stopping in. I lament that we have lost so many of them . . .