The Natural and Cultural Significance of the Black Ash

The following post is contributed by Friends of Murphys Point student Lazar Stevanovic in recognition of National Indigenous Peoples Day on June 21.

This week we will take a closer look at Black Ash, its threats, conservation status and importance to Indigenous Peoples. At Murphys Point Provincial Park, the Friends recognize the threats to Black Ash as many have been killed by the Emerald Ash Borer. Black Ash (Fraxinus nigra) is a native tree species found throughout Ontario, with the exception of the Far North. Young trees resemble a cork tree, and become scalier as they grow. This tree species is easy to identify because it is one of the last to leaf in the spring and one of the first to turn yellow and drop its leaves in the fall. Black Ash prefers to grow in wetlands with a high moisture content (Government of Ontario, 2014).

The compound leaf of a Black Ash on the Lally Homestead ©Ontario Parks

The main threat to Black Ash is the Emerald Ash Borer (Agrilus planipennis Fairmaire), a phloem-feeding beetle that is native to Asia and kills all species of ash.  It was first identified in Ontario in 2002 when it was documented in Windsor. By 2012, it had spread throughout southern Ontario and western Quebec.  To combat the spread of the Emerald Ash Borer, prohibition of the transport of fire wood has been implemented in areas regulated for the Emerald Ash Borer.  This prohibition extends to all hardwood species – not only the Black Ash – and includes all materials derived from Black Ash. The spread of the Emerald Ash Borer is enhanced through the movement of firewood, with the insect being able to spread from a point of infestation at a rate of 10.6 km/year without the transport of firewood. Black Ash trees infested with Emerald Ash Borer have a mortality rate of 100% within 6 years of the initial infestation, and this is causing serious harm to our forests within a matter of years (Government of Nova Scotia, 2015).

The scaly bark of a Black Ash on the Lally Homestead ©Ontario Parks

Within Ontario, Black Ash is classified as endangered due to projected declines of 70% within the next 100 years. Protecting the Black Ash in Ontario is very important, as 25% of the global Black Ash population is found in this province (COSSARO, 2020). Black Ash has great significance to many Indigenous Peoples within Canada. Nations such as the Anishinaabeg, Haudenosaunee, Wabenaki, Ho-Chunk, and Menominee have used the Black Ash to weave baskets for thousands of years. Now, with the continuing decline in the availability of Black Ash as a result of the Emerald Ash Borer’s damage, Black Ash split baskets, ash bark baskets and hand-carved ash cradlethwarts are becoming rarer and rarer (Church, 2016). 

Master birch-bark canoe builder Chuck Commanda of the Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg, an Algonquin First Nation, explained the significance of Black Ash in Algonquin culture. “We use that wood quite often in the construction of birch bark canoes. That was for the thwarts.” He went on to explain that other uses for the Black Ash is in the construction of ash baskets, snow shoes and fish traps.  Chuck shared many concerns for the preservation of the Black Ash. “So now if I was to make a canoe, and the ash being the thwarts, if the conditions are right wherever the canoe ended up, that bug might come out and just decimate the whole ash forest.”  Chuck added another concern is that there is not a suitable replacement for Black Ash.  “Ash being a hardwood, it is very lightweight but very durable, strong – which is probably why we came up with the idea to use them. Also, for basket making, for fish traps, the layers separate really easily once you start pounding them. And so, like I said, we haven’t found a replacement.” 

Chuck is mindful of the possibility of contributing to the spread of Emerald Ash Borer in his work, and because of that he is careful about transporting ash.  He explained that he had gone to Chapleau, Ontario to construct a birch bark canoe and was concerned that if he brought ash from home, he could spread the Emerald Ash Borer to Chapleau, an area where the Emerald Ash Borer has not yet invaded.  Chuck also shared his thoughts on the future conservation of Black Ash.  Chuck learned from the Haudenosaunee Nation about ash trees and other hardwoods being immune to Emerald Ash Borer when the new saplings would spring from the stump of a felled Black Ash. When it comes to the conservation of Black Ash, Chuck believes “if we were to leave Mother Nature alone, she would take care of the problem by herself. That’s men and humans in general. We’re so arrogant to think that we can always improve what nature has and we’ve seen in the past that that’s not true.”

                The Friends of Murphys Point would like to express our gratitude to Chuck Commanda for imparting his wisdom about Black Ash to us and would like to wish all Indigenous Peoples a happy Indigenous Peoples Day. Miigwetch!

Traditional Black Ash baskets of the Mohawk First Nation. (Photo by Susan Athrens)

References

Church, K. (2016, May 18). Sustaining Black Ash Traditions. First American Art Magazine.

                http://firstamericanartmagazine.com/black-ash/

COSSARO. (2020). Ontario Species at Risk Evaluation Report for

Black Ash. http://cossaroagency.ca/wp-content/uploads/2021/04/COSSARO_Evaluation_blackash_FINAL.pdf

Government of Nova Scotia. (2015). Recovery and Action Plan for Black Ash (Fraxinus nigra)

in Nova Scotia. https://novascotia.ca/natr/wildlife/biodiversity/pdf/Black_Ash_Recovery_Plan_Nova_Scotia.pdf#:~:text=Historically%2C%20Black%20ash%20was%20likely%20threatened%20by%20overharvest,habitat%20loss%20and%20alteration%2C%20disease%20and%20poor%20health.

Government of Ontario. (2014). Black Ash. https://www.ontario.ca/page/black-ash

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