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Trees With Winged Seeds - Ashes

( Originally Published 1927 )



Few large trees in our American woods have their leaves set opposite upon the twig. Still fewer of the trees with compound leaves show this arrangement. Consult the first broad-leaved tree you meet, and the chances are that its leaves are set alternately upon the twigs. There is a multitude of families in this class; but if the leaves are paired and set opposite, we narrow the families to a very few. Are the leaves simple? Then the tree may be a maple or a dogwood, or a viburnum.. Are the leaves opposite and compound? Then you have one of two families. Are the leaflets clustered on the end of the leaf-stalk? Then the tree is a buckeye or a horse chestnut—members of the buckeye family. Are the leaflets set along the sides of the central stem? Then the tree is an ash. A few exceptions may be discovered, but the rule holds in the general forest area of North America.

Ash trees have lance-shaped, winged seeds, borne in profuse clusters, and often held well into the winter. But there is no season when the leaf arrangement cannot be at once determined by the leaf scars, prominent upon the twigs; and under the tree there will always be remnants of the cast-off foliage, to show that it is compound.

Ash trees are usually large and stately when full grown, with trunks clothed in smooth bark, checked into small, often diamond-shaped plates. This gives the trees a trim, handsome appearance in the winter woods. As shade trees, ashes are very desirable, and they are valuable for their timber.

The near relatives of ashes surprise us. They belong to the olive family, whose type is the olive tree of the Mediterranean region, now extensively cultivated in California for its fruit. Privets, lilacs, and forsythias, favorites in the gardens of all countries that have temperate climates, are cousins to the ash tree. One of its most charming relatives is the little fringe tree of our own woods. Thirty species of ash are known; half of that number inhabit North America. There are ash trees in every section of our country except the extremes of latitude and altitude. Tropical ash trees are native to Cuba, North Africa, and the Orient.

The White Ash

Fraxinus Americana, Linn.

The white ash is one of the noblest trees in the American forest, the peer of the loftiest oak or walnut. When young it is slim and graceful, but it grows sturdier as it approaches maturity, lifting stout, spreading branches above a tall, massive trunk. In the forest the head is narrow, but in the open the dome of a white ash is as broad and symmetrical as that of a white oak. A gray rind covers the young branches and the bark is gray. The foliage has white lining and each of the seven leaflets has a short stalk. These are all characters that distinguish the white ash from other species and enable one to name it at a glance. In the South the white ash is undersized and the wood is of poor quality. In the Northeastern and Central states it is one of the most important and largest of our timber trees, with wood more valuable than any other ash. Its uses are manifold: it is staple in the manufacture of agricultural implements, carriages, furniture, and in the interior finish of buildings. Tool handles and oars are made of white ash and it is superior as fuel. The reddish-brown heart-wood, with paler sap-wood, is tough, elastic, hard, and heavy. It is not durable in soil and becomes brittle with age.

Ash trees are late in coming into leaf. When all the forest is green and full of blossoms, the ash trees are still naked. Not until May do the rusty yellow winter buds of the white ash swell and throw out on separate trees their staminate and pistillate flower clusters from the axils of last year's foliage. (See illustration, page 214.) Then the leaves unfold; downy at first, becoming bright and shiny above, but always with pale linings. On fertile trees the inconspicuous flowers mature into pointed fruits, one to two inches long. The wing is twice the length of the seed and is rounded to a blunt point. The seed itself is round and pointed, on branching stalks that form clusters from six to eight inches long.

As a street tree the white ash deserves much more general favor in cities than it has yet achieved, for it is straight and symmetrical, and its light foliage grows in irregular, wavy masses, through which some sunlight can always sift and let grass grow under the tree. This tree is a rapid grower, perfectly hardy in most sections of the country, and has no serious insect enemies. The foliage turns to brownish purple and yellow in the autumn.

The Black Ash

F. nigra, Marsh.

The black ash is a lover of marshes, found from Newfoundland to Manitoba, and from Virginia to Arkansas. Its blue-black winter buds, the sombre green of its foliage, and the dark hues of its bark and wood have justified the popular name of this handsome, slender tree. The leaflets, oval and long-pointed, are sessile on the hairy leaf stalk, except the terminal one. At maturity the leaves are a foot or more in length, of seven to eleven leaflets, that turn brown and fall early in autumn. The keys of the black ash are borne in open panicles, eight to ten inches long; each has a short, flat seed, with a broad blade, thin, rounded, and notched instead of pointed, at the extremity.

The wood of black ash has the tough, heavy coarse-grained qualities of the white ash, but differs in being very durable and in being easily split into thin layers—each a year's growth. The Indians taught the early settlers to weave baskets out of black ash splints. These splints are easily separated by bending the split wood over a block. The strain breaks loose the tissue that forms the spring wood, and separates the bands of tough, dense summer wood into strips suitable for basket weaving. Black ash is used for chair seats, barrel hoops, furniture, and cabinet work. The saplings are oftenest chosen for hop and bean poles.

As a lawn tree, the black ash has little to recommend it for it often dies of thirst in the loam of a garden. At best it is short-lived. Planted in swampy ground, the tree spreads by seeds, and suckers from the roots, soon forming extensive thickets, and drinking up the moisture at a marvelous rate.

The Red Ash

F. Pennsylvanica, Marsh.

The red ash follows the courses of streams and lake mar-gins from New Brunswick to the Black Hills and south into Florida, Alabama, and Nebraska. This tree is much planted for shade and ornament in New England, and in other Eastern sections. The tree is small, spreading into a compact though irregular head of twiggy, slender branches. The yellow-green foliage, a foot long, of seven to nine short, stalked, lustrous leaflets, is lightened by a pale pubescence on petioles and leaf-linings. The same velvety down covers the new shoots. Summer and winter this sign never fails.

Red ash seeds are extremely long and slender, and have the most graceful outlines of all the darts that various ash trees bear. The heavy, round body has a wing twice its length by which the wind carries the seeds far away. Very gradually an ash tree launches its seeds. It is easy to understand why the family is so scattered through any woods, for the wind is the sower. The reddish bark of the twigs and trunk of this tree seems to be the justification for its name. Its brown wood is inferior to white ash.

The Green Ash

F. Pennsylvanica, Variety lanceolata, Sarg.

The green ash has narrower, shorter leaves than the parent species and usually more sharply saw-toothed margins. Instead of having pale linings, the leaflets are bright green on both surfaces. This is the ash tree of the almost treeless prairies from Dakota southward, where it not only lives, but flourishes as well as in its native habitat, the rich soil of stream banks farther east. Its range crosses the Rocky Mountains and reaches the slopes of the Wasatch Mountains in Utah. East of the Alleghanies the tree is little known. It is in the West that it is the dominant ash. It is one of the few important agencies which have turned the "Great American Desert" into a land of shady roads and comfortable, protected homesteads.

The Blue Ash

F. quadrangulata, Michx.

The blue ash has four-angled twigs, often winged at the corners with a thin plate of bark. The sap contains a sub-stance that gives a blue dye when the inner bark is macerated in water. The tree reaches one hundred and twenty feet in height, above a slender trunk, and has small spreading branches that terminate in stout twigs, characteristically angled.

The tree is occasionally cultivated in parks and gardens in the Eastern states where it is a distinct addition to the list of handsome shade trees. It is hardy, quick of growth, and unusually free from the ills that beset trees. In the forests it reaches its best estate on the limestone hills of the Big Smoky Mountains Its wood ranks with the best white ash and exceeds it in one particular; it is the most durable ash wood when exposed alternately to wet and dry conditions. It is used for vehicles, for flooring and for handles of tools especially pitchforks.

The Oregon Ash F. Oregona, Nutt.

The Oregon ash follows the coast south from Puget Sound to San Francisco Bay, and from the western foothills of the Sierra Nevada to those of the mountains of southern California. In southwestern Oregon the tree reaches the height of eighty feet, with a trunk three to four feet in diameter. The stout branches form a broad crown where there is room, and the luxuriant foliage is wonderfully light in color, pale green above, with silvery pubescent leaf-linings. Of the five to seven leaflets, all are sessile or short-stalked, except the terminal one, which has a stem an inch long. All are oval and abruptly pointed, thick and firm in texture, turning yellow or russet brown in autumn. The lumber is counted equal to white ash and is one of the most valuable of deciduous timber trees in the western coast states.

A. number of little ash trees, distinct in species from those described already, are native to limited sections of the country. All have the family traits by which they are readily recognized, if seed form, leaf form, and leaf arrangement are kept in mind. In the corner where Colorado, Nevada, and Utah meet, is an ash with its leaf reduced to a single leaflet, but the seeds are profusely borne to declare the tree's name to any one who visits its restricted territory. In rich soil, three leaflets are occasionally developed.

The European Ash

F. Excelsior, Linn.

The European ash is the large timber ash from the Atlantic Coast of Europe to western Asia. The earliest writers have ranked its wood next to oak in usefulness. It was known as "the husbandman's tree." Its uses were listed at interminable length, for "ploughs, axle-trees, wheel-rings, harrows, balls . . oars, blocks for pulleys, tenons and mortises, poles, spars, handles, and stocks for tools, spade trees, carts, ladders. . . . In short, so good and profitable is this tree that every prudent Lord of a Manor should employ one acre of ground with Ash to every twenty acres of other land, since in as many years it would be more worth than the land itself."

The saplings, cut when three to six years old, made excellent fork and spade handles on account of the toughness and pliability of their fibre. Crates for china were made of the branches. Steamed and bent, this wood lent itself to the making of hoops for barrels and kegs. The cutting off of the main trunk set the roots to sending up a forest of young shoots, ready for cutting again when they reached the size for walking-sticks and whip-stocks.

Quite independent of its lumber value, but possibly correlated with it, was the great reputation the ash tree achieved in the myths and superstitions of widely separated peoples. In south Europe, tradition declared that a race of brazen men sprung from the ash tree. In the North, the Norse mythology made Igdrasil, the ash, the "World tree," from whose roots the whole race of men sprung. The roots of this mythological tree penetrated the earth to its lowest depths and its giant top supported the heavens. Wisdom and knowledge gushed from its base as from a fountain, and underneath were the abodes of the gods, giants, and the Fates. Superstitions of all kinds have come down with the language of different peoples, making the history of the ash tree a most interesting study.

A Chinese ash yields a valuable white wax which exudes from the bark of the twigs. F. ornus, Linn., native to south Europe and Asia Minor, exudes a waxy secretion from bark and leaves. This is the manna of commerce. Last but not least of the products of the ash tree are the curious and beautiful contortions of the grain found in "burls" on the trunks of old trees of many species. These warty excrescences are eagerly bought by special agents for cabinet-makers. Woodwork from these abnormal growths shows exquisitely waved lines when polished, as delicate as those in a banded agate. Fancy boxes, bowls, and other articles brought fancy prices when made of "ram's horn" or "fiddleback" ash, which often went under the trade name of green ebony. The black ash in America is particularly subject to contortions of the grain.



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