Gateway to the Classics: Handbook of Nature Study: Trees by Anna Botsford Comstock
Handbook of Nature Study: Trees by  Anna Botsford Comstock


Pistillate blossoms of white ash.

Photo by G. F. Morgan.

The White Ash

Teacher's Story

dropcap image YTHS and legends cluster about the ash tree. It was, in the Norse mythology, the tree "Igdrasil," the tree of the universe, which was the origin of all things. It is a pity that it was not the Tree of Life in the Garden of Eden, for if another myth is true, no snake will go near it or cross its branches. There is a widespread belief that it draws lightning, just as the beech repels the thunderbolts. "As straight as a white ash tree" was the highest compliment that could be paid to the young pioneer; so straight is its fiber and so strong its quality, that the American Indians made their canoe paddles from it.

The ashes have the most beautiful bark in the world. It is divided into fine, vertical ridges, giving the trunks the look of being shaded with pencil lines; the bark smooths out on the lower branches. But even more characteristic than the bark, are the ash branches and twigs; the latter are sparse, coarse and clumsy, those of the white ash being pale orange or gray and seemingly warped into curves at the ends; they are covered with whitish gray dots, which reveal themselves under the lens to be breathing-pores.


Bole of white ash showing the beautiful bark.

Photo by Ralph Curtis.

The white ash loves to grow in rich woods or in rich soil anywhere, even though it be shallow; at its best, it reaches the height of 130 feet, with a trunk six feet through. Its foliage is peculiarly graceful; the leaves are from eight to twelve inches long and are composed of from five to nine leaflets. The leaflets have little petioles connecting them with the middle stem; in shape they are ovate with edges obscurely toothed or entire; the two basal leaflets are smaller than the others and the end one largest; in texture, they are satiny, dark green above, whitish beneath, with feather-like veins, often hairy on the lower side. The petioles are swollen at the base. The leaves are set opposite upon the twig; except the horsechestnut, the ashes are our only trees with compound leaves which have the leaves opposite. This character alone readily distinguishes the ashes from the hickories. The autumn foliage has a very peculiar color; the leaves are dull purple above and pale yellow below; this brings the sunshine color into the shadowy parts of the tree, and gives a curious effect of no perspective. Notwithstanding this, the autumn coloring is a joy to the artistic eye and is very characteristic.

The seeds of the ash are borne in crowded clusters; the delicate stem, from three to five inches long, is branched into smaller stems to which are joined two or three keys, and often several of these main stems come from the same bud at the tip of last year's wood so that they seem crowded. The seed is winged, the wing being almost twice as long as the seed set at its base. Thoreau says: "The keys of the white ash cover the trees profusely, a sort of mulberry brown, an inch and a half long, and handsome." The seeds cling persistently to the tree, and I have often observed them being blown over the surface of the snow as if they were skating to a planting place.

The flowers appear in April or May, before the leaves. The pistillate flowers make an untidy fringe, curling in every direction around the twigs. The chief flower stem is three to four inches long, quite stout, pale green, and from this arise short, fringed stems, each carrying along its sides the knobs on little stems—which are the pistillate flowers. Each tiny flower seems to be bristling with individuality, standing off at its own angle to get its own pollen. The flower has the calyx four-lobed; the style is long and slender and is divided into a V-shaped purple stigma.

The staminate flowers appear early in the spring, and look like knobs on the tips of the coarse, sparse twigs; they consist of masses of thick, green anthers with very short, stout filaments; each calyx is four-lobed. These flowers are attached to a five-branching stem; but the stem and its branches cannot be seen unless the anthers are plucked off, because they hang in such a crowded mass. Later the leaves come out beyond them.


Staminate blossoms of white ash.

Photo by G. F. Morgan.

The leaf buds in winter are very pretty; they are white, bluntly pointed, with a pale gray half-circle below, on which was set last year's leaf. Another one of nature's miracles is the bouquet of leaves coming from one of the big four-parted terminal buds, which is made up of four scales, two of which are longer and narrower than the others. Within the bud each little compound leaflet is folded like a sheet of paper lengthwise, and folded with the other leaflets like the leaves of a book; and when they first appear they look like tiny, scrawny, birds' claws. But it is not merely one pair of leaves that comes from this bud, but many, each pair being set on a twig opposite and at right angles to the next pair on either side. Even as many as five pairs of these splendid compound leaves come from this one prolific bud. As they push out, the green stem of the new wood grows, thus spacing the pairs properly for the making of beautiful foliage.


Ash Trees

Leading thought— The ashes are our most valuable timber trees; the white ash is one of the most beautiful and useful of them all. It does not make forests, but it grows in them, and its wood is of great value for many things.

Method—The pupils should all see the tree where it grows. The questions should be given to them for their field note-books. The lesson should begin in the fall and be continued in the spring.


1. What is there about the bark of the ash tree which distinguishes it from other trees? Where does the white ash grow? What is the height and thickness of the ash tree you are studying?

2. The ash leaf is a compound leaf; of how many leaflets is it composed? What is the texture and shape of the leaflets? Describe the veins. Do the leaflets have petioles (petiolules)? Are the edges of the leaflets toothed? Which of the leaflets is largest? Which smallest? Is the petiole swollen at the base? How are the leaves arranged on the twigs? How does this distinguish the ashes from all other of our trees having compound leaves? How do the hickories have their leaves arranged? What color is the ash foliage in autumn?

3. Describe the seeds of the ash and the way they are arranged on their stems. Where are they placed on the tree? How long do they cling? How does the snow help to scatter them?

4. When does the white ash blossom? Are the pistillate and staminate flowers together or separate? Find and describe them.

5. What are our uses for ash timber? For what are the saplings used? How did the Indians use the white ash? Write a theme on all the interesting things you can find about the ash trees.

6. How many species of the ash trees do you know?

Supplementary reading—Trees in Prose and Poetry, pp. 60-71.

"I care not how men trace their ancestry,

To ape or Adam; let them please their whim;

But I in June am midway to believe

A tree among my far progenitors,

Such sympathy is mine with all the race,

Such mutual recognition vaguely sweet

There is between us. Surely there are times

When they consent to own me of their kin,

And condescend to me and call me cousin,

Murmuring faint lullabies of eldest time,

Forgotten, and yet dumbly felt with thrills

Moving the lips, though fruitless of the words."

—From "Under the Willows," Lowell.

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