Saturday, January 17, 2009

White Ash

White ash Evergreen Cemetery

Fish gotta swim. Birds gotta fly. Baseball bats gotta be made out of white ash, right?(1) Maybe not. The baseball bat tree is dying off. The very existence of all of our native ash species is in question, threatened by an imported pest called emerald ash borer. The losses to the ash population could be on the scale of the destruction caused by chestnut blight or Dutch elm disease.(2) The insect culprit, first identified near Detroit in 2002, has already killed tens of millions of ash trees in the midwest. Emerald ash borers, metallic green bugs about a half inch long, are headed this way, and they have already been found in western Pennsylvania.

White ash and green ash are both widely used as street trees because they grow fast and are very tolerant of difficult conditions. Plainfield doesn't have a great abundance of ashes, but white ashes, Fraxinus americana, are among our oldest and grandest trees. The two massive white ashes in Evergreen Cemetery on Plainfield Avenue are thought to be more than 150 years old. The one pictured at the top of the page was photographed from Plainfield Avenue. The same tree is pictured below photographed from within the cemetery.

The other ancient ash in Evergreen Cemetery is not visible from the street. It is pictured below.

The Friends of Plainfield Evergreen Cemetery, a volunteer group organized in 2008 by Donald Leichter, plans to rehabilitate the historic graveyard, which has grave markers that date back to the early 18th century. The group hopes not only to restore grave markers and undo the damage caused by vandalism, but also to care for the magnificent trees. We can hope that the volunteers do not find themselves forced to cope with emerald ash borers, but there are weapons available for the fight. Systemic insecticides applied to the soil or injected into the tree annually can control emerald ash borers. These treatments are expensive and are probably suited only to specimen trees. Options available for the large majority of ashes that aren't prized specimens aren't as sure a bet. Researchers are experimenting with parasitic wasps that prey on ash borer eggs and larvae. There are bans on transporting firewood out of quarantined areas to slow down the insect's spread.

Some towns in the midwest have resorted to cutting down healthy ash trees over time before ash borers arrive in order to avoid suddenly finding themselves obliged to remove huge numbers of hazardous ash trees all at once after the borers have killed them. Does this sound extreme? For municipalities weighing their options, Purdue University even offers an online calculator to help determine the comparative costs of tree removal, tree removal + replacement, and antibiotic treatment over a 25 year time frame.(3) A grim calculus.

Adult emerald ash borers live only about three weeks. The females lay their eggs in crevices in ash bark during the summer. The larvae burrow through the bark and spend the next year or two excavating serpentine tunnels through the tree's vascular system, which is just beneath the bark. Destruction of the vascular system prevents the tree from transporting water and nutrients up and down the trunk. Death of the tree typically occurs within five years.

White ash 825 West Front Street
(1) The wood of northern white ash is prized for its combination of strength and light weight. It's perfect for making baseball bats and hand tools. At a time in my life when I thought that a baseball bat was part of the basic required equipment for living, I owned a Louisville Slugger. My friends and I knew that Louisville Sluggers were made of white ash, but we wouldn't have been able to tell a white ash tree from a white spruce. I don't know what ever happened to my Louisville Slugger, but these days I get plenty of use out of ash in the form of garden spade handles. It must be admitted that it's hard to work up the same enthusiasm for a spade that a bat can inspire. Recently maple bats have become popular. Many professional baseball players switched to maple bats when it became known that maple was the choice of Barry Bonds (

Copyright Gregory Palermo