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Northern Research Station
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Sustaining Forests

Culturally and Economically Important Nontimber Forest Products of Northern Maine

Plant Profiles

Brown Ash, Fraxinus nigra

Brown ash growth rings separate during pounding, photo by Michelle Baumflek

Family: Oleaceae
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."


Ash basket by Fred Tomah, photo by Michelle Baumflek

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.

Brown ash leaves and bark, photo from USDA PLANTS Database

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.

Finished brown ash basket splints, ready for weaving. Photo by Michelle Baumflek

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.

Threats to Brown Ash Basketry

Changes in Quality:  Several basketmakers we spoke with expressed concern about the quality of ash trees in northern Maine, explaining that it has become harder and harder to find a suitable tree.  Brown ash is good for basketmaking because it is supple and bends easily without breaking, but recently, basketmakers have been encountering brittle wood.

"I got a permit to harvest some wood, but it was gutchid, it was brittle.  But we were still able to use it. Some of it was good.  And that’s the way it is now.  It’s almost impossible to get a stick that’s actually perfect now, where we used to get some that were… My grandmother would just be so happy when she’d see those logs.  But now, all she sees is mostly brittle wood.
I remember a lot of brown ash that had a lot of sapwood, the white wood.  You can walk in and cut wood today, and you get no white wood."

I remember a lot of brown ash that had a lot of sapwood, the white wood.  You can walk in and cut wood today, and you get no white wood."

Access to Land:  Native American basketmakers we spoke with felt that gaining access to land and permission to harvest trees is becoming increasingly difficult.  Several people attributed this change to shifts in landowners' attitudes about privacy and the management of their land:

"People are a little more into their land and how it’s going to be treated, not wanting anything to be cut on it, wanting to preserve that, which is understandable. But it’s hard because we’re trying to preserve a way of life too." 

Emerald Ash Borer: Although the emerald ash borer (EAB) has not yet been found in Maine, basketmakers are increasingly concerned about it.  This small beetle is responsible for the decimation of ash populations in the Midwest, and has been steadily making its way east.  Along with Maine’s four Native American tribes (Maliseet, Mi’kmaq, Passamaquoddy and Penobscot), the Maine Indian Basketmakers Alliance has been undertaking preemptive measures, including creating a seed bank to preserve ash resources for future generations.

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.

 

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Last Modified: 05/24/2010