The ancient white ash tree was leaning precariously close to our house. The rains kept coming, and the tree held for one more year. The next spring, I held my breath, but the rains came again.
The white ash came with the house. When we moved into this new neighborhood in the early seventies, I loved that the streets were all named for trees. I was coming to a strange new small town, and though I had grown up in one that was just as small, I had lived in Louisville between the two. There were no mountains here, my brother who still lives in the mountains calls this the flatlands. I was not sure that I could get used to this alien land, and even though I had lived in Louisville for several years, there were hills there, and I was only two hours from my mountains. Moving to western Kentucky not only put me in the flatlands, but my mountains were hundreds of miles away. The fact that this new community had streets named for trees was very nearly my only consolation.
Work moves are part of life now. My husband chose this area because of the lakes, and as usually happens, I came along for the ride. He had promised me if I would stay for five years, only five years, we could rethink our choices then. So I agreed, and here we were. The subdivision was quite new, the house was less than a year old and built on what had formerly been farmland. I was a little disappointed because there was only one mature tree on the property, and it wasn't a tree with which I was familiar. We moved in February, and it was barely in bud, so I was a little anxious to know what was growing in my back yard, only about 20 feet from my house.
The front yard was fairly bare as well, with two small maples, one on each side of the driveway, and a tiny magnolia that was barely up to my nose, not quite five feet tall. I was wondering if they would grow at all during the five years I had promised to remain here. By spring, the mature tree in the back yard was in full bud, and as it finally leafed out, it had a display of the strangest little blooms, then suddenly little clusters of winged fruit appeared. I had never seen anything like it in the mountains.
The white ash, Fraxinus americana, grows along streambanks, hills and mountain slopes. I wonder how it got to the flatlands of western Kentucky. It is native to North America and is found south to northern Florida and west to eastern Kansas. It is a deciduous tree, commonly growing to 80 feet but sometimes reaching over 100 feet. The scaly bark is dark brown to gray. The leaves are pinnately compound, with five to nine pointed oval leaflets. Clusters of purplish male and female flowers bloom on male trees every year during April and May. The female flowers heavily only every two or three years. The winged fruit is about two inches long.
The white ash, also known as the American ash, could well be called the all American tree. Not only does it provide the wood for baseball bats but it is also one of the most common shade trees in the eastern half of the United States. The timber is rough and pliant, supplying wood for everything from church pews to bowling alleys. It continued to provide the only shade between us and the setting sun for several years, and finally one year when my mother was visiting in the early spring, she mentioned the white ash in the back yard. I was amazed that Mom knew what it was and I didn't, but she said this: "There was one that grew near Aunt Bett, and I remember that you would swing from its branches and jump over the creek below. Most of the time you landed in the creek and came home soaking wet. I am surprised that you don't remember."
Well I plopped my behind down in so many creeks during those years, it isn't surprising that I don't recall what I was swinging from. Most often it was whatever would hold me long enough for me to get a good run 'n go and swing out as far as I could go over whatever it was that I was aiming for. Sure enough, in Aunt Bett's papers I find mention of the white ash. It seems that the American Indians showed the early settlers a medicinal use for almost every part of the tree. Some in the far northeast used the sap to treat external cancerous growths. Another tribe valued a decoction of the leaves as an antiseptic, and women used it after childbirth. Other tribes specified a tea made from the bark as a treatment for an itching scalp and sores, and they used leaf tea to expel worms from the body. (Maybe that is the reason it is blocked from my mind.) Even the seeds were used, Aunt Bett lists their usage to increase appetite, and as a remedy for fevers. In doing some research I also find that in the early 19th century, American physicians prescribed white ash preparations as a styptic to stop minor bleeding as well as some other very unappetizing purposes. Experimental evidence does not support white ash's use in herbal medicine, but I do find that the white ash lumber is used in many consumer goods, including furniture and athletic equipment, particularly baseball bats.
Now I bring you back to my white ash tree in the back yard. Since the other trees had yet to mature, our white ash served many purposes. Our two children were born here in the flatlands, and flatlanders they will ever be, I guess. When they were 3 and 5, we built them a little cedar playhouse beneath the white ash. My daughter, whose name is Ashley, claimed the tree as her own, and she played beneath it every chance she got. It also provided shade for their outside playset, and finally when they outgrew it and the playhouse, it sheltered my shade garden.
Time passed and the trees around the house continued to grow, as did those that I planted, until finally by the beginning of the '90s we had a very mature yard with gardens both sun and shade. The five-year stipulation that I had been given in the early '70s seemed to extend itself every year, and my children eventually graduated from high school, found their way through colleges, and out into the world. The white ash remained, as did I, until just a few years ago. It was a huge tree and towered over the entire neighborhood. In its branches it had harbored robins and sometimes neighborhood cats, in the summer it sang with the voices of every bird in town, and in the winter its branches were decorated with cardinals and squirrels. I loved that tree. But the spring rains began, and with them came the demise of the white ash. It along with the magnolia in front, began to tilt at an alarming degree after every rain. My husband said it had to go, because it was going to crash into the house some dark rainy night and take us both with it. I told him I thought maybe I could prop it up on something, but he frowned and said something about my foolishness.
I made arrangements with a tree service to cut down the magnolia and the white ash, my two favorites, but I told them they were to be cut only when I was away at school. I could not bear to see them destroyed right in front of my eyes. And so it happened. I had already started two new magnolias from seeds, so I felt consoled that they both were quite healthy. But I knew I would have nothing left of my ash. When I came around the corner from school that afternoon, all I could see was the empty space where the ash and the magnolia had been. When I got to the backyard, I found that my tree guy had left a stump from the ash, and a little note telling me that he would remove it if I wanted, but he thought it might make a centerpiece for a new flower garden.
And so it is.
Verification of the medicinal uses of the white ash in early times came from the book "Magic and Medicine of Plants" the Reader's Digest Association, 1986.
Photos are from PlantFiles, thanks to Viburnumvalley, Melody and Jeff_Beck.
About Sharon Brown
I am a retired high school art and humanities teacher. I grew up in the Appalachian mountains of southeast KY and now I live with my two rescued cats, Jazz and Daisy, in far western KY. I am an artist often doing commissioned work, and in addition to writing articles for Dave's Garden, I also write boating stories for a nautical magazine as well as other venues. My greatest loves are writing, painting, my 5 year old grandson, then learning the history of our numerous wildflowers in Kentucky. And, of course, there's gardening.