Culturally and Economically Important Nontimber Forest Products of Northern Maine
Brown Ash, Fraxinus nigra
Other Names: Black ash, basket ash, frene noir (French), wikp (Maliseet), wiskoq (Mi’kmaq)
"My grandfather always said you could tell [the quality of a tree] by how the leaves are...If it’s nice and green at the top, that’s good, but if it’s got a lot of dead at the top, then it’s not good. You look at how straight the tree is, you look to see if there’s a lot of knots in it. You also look at the bark. The cleaner the bark is, the better the tree."
Considered a ‘trash tree’ in timber terms, brown ash (as it is called in Maine) is essential and irreplaceable to the cultural identity and economic livelihoods of Native Americans in northern Maine. According to the Wabanaki creation myth, people came forth from the bark of an ash after Gluskap, the Creator, shot an arrow into the tree. Baskets made out of ash splints have been used for thousands of years. Ash work baskets were built and used by Native American workers to collect potato crops in Aroostook County until harvests became mechanized, around 1960. Today, brown ash basketry has been elevated to an art form. Basket makers often favor lighter colored sapwood, which holds vibrant dye colors better than darker heartwood. Master basket makers may command hundreds or thousands of dollars for intricate, exquisitely woven fancy baskets.
Physical Description: Brown ash is a small to medium sized tree with thick, opposite branches. Leaves are made up of seven to eleven oval-shaped leaflets. Bark is gray, flaky and irregularly furrowed. Brown ash fruit is a broad, single-winged samara.
Habitat: Brown ash is typically found in swamps, along stream banks, and other poorly drained sites.
Uses: Brown ash is primarily used as a basket-making material by Mi’kmaq and Maliseet artisans. Ash wood is also used to create traditional wooden snowshoes.
Preparation: After being cut down, ash is pounded, either in whole logs or in long, narrow sections, to separate growth rings.
"You’ve got to pound the top side, turn it over, pound it over the bottom side, then you have to put it on an angle and pound that for the third time, and then bend that over, and when you bend that, it breaks the fibers from the wood."
Depending on the thickness, individual annual layers may be further split into several layers. Splints are then scraped smooth and stored until ready for use. Wood must be kept moist, or else it becomes brittle. Some basketmakers will sink whole logs into ponds until they are needed.
When to harvest: Ash may be harvested any time of year. Some people prefer to wait until winter because frozen ground and snow cover make harvesting less messy, and less damaging to soils, particularly in wet areas.
Photo of ash leaves courtesy USDA-NRCS PLANTS Database / Herman, D.E., et al. 1996. North Dakota tree handbook. USDA NRCS ND State Soil Conservation Committee; NDSU Extension and Western Area Power Administration, Bismarck. Other photos by Michelle Baumflek.
Last Modified: 05/24/2010