Black Ash: A Foundational Wetland and Cultural Keystone Species

Black ash (Fraxinus nigra Marshall), also known as brown or basket ash, is a unique tree that is most often found in wet, swampy forests and riparian forests that border streams, rivers, and lakes. Its native range extends across much of the north central and northeastern United States, and southeastern Canada1. Today, black ash is mostly found in northern portions of the Lake States (MN, WI, MI) as well as NY, PA, and ME. Black ash is an ecological foundational species because of its role in nutrient cycling and hydrological processes, and the habitat it provides for various birds and other animals in forests where it is dominant.

State Estimated Number of Black ash Stems Percentage of Total Ash Species
New York 26,500,000 6%
Minnesota 302,500,000 78%
Wisconsin 213,000,000 59%
Michigan 159,000,000 46%
Pennsylvania 1,500,000 1%
Maine 45,500,000 32%
Caption: Prominence of black ash in 6 different US States. The species makes up a large component of ash species in the Great Lakes Region.
Historic black ash range and the 2020 EAB regulated Area. Map by Tom Luther, USFS

A dead black ash with EAB galleries. Ash trees decay rapidly, and their barl falls off soon after they die. Photo by River Mathieu, MSU

Black ash is also considered a cultural keystone species for many American Indian and First Nations groups throughout its range.2,3 For generations, basketmaking families have created artistic and utilitarian baskets with splints from black ash sapwood. Black ash is also revered as a spiritual resource and a source of Indigenous medicines for several Indigenous groups.

Unfortunately, black ash is a highly preferred and vulnerable host for emerald ash borer in North America. Given the current distribution and the ongoing spread of EAB, there is concern that black ash could be lost from North American forests by mid-century.4,5 Loss of black ash overstory trees will likely affect wetland and riparian forest ecosystems and will directly impact the ways of life of Indigenous people who have been using black ash for basketry for millennia.2,6

A black ash stand in Northern, NY unaffected by EAB (Left). Trees here appear healthy, and the canopy is very thick. A black ash stand in New Hampshire that has been infested with EAB (Right). Many of the overstory trees have died and the canopy is open. Photos by Nate Siegert, USFS

More Information


Learn about black ash ecology and how EAB may effect forested wetlands in North America.

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Black Ash Basketry

Click here to learn more about black ash basketry.

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From Tree to Basket: Black Ash Tree Basketry in the North Country

Click here to learn more about indigenous black ash basketry pratices and the traditions surrounding black ash.

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Emerald Ash Borer Impacts on American Indian Communities

Emerald ash borer (EAB) infestation is a major concern for American Indian people. Many American Indian cultures and traditions rely on ash trees for the wood needed for making baskets, lacrosse sticks, pipe stems, flutes, and medicinal remedies. The ash tree is a central figure in some traditional and religious stories told by several American Indian tribes.

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A Silent Killer

National Museum of the American Indian magazine, Spring 2020, "A Silent Killer", by Anne Bolen, pages 8-15, (copyright symbol) 2020 Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of the American Indian. Shared with permission.

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Page References

  1. Gucker, C.L. 2005. Fraxinus nigra. In: Fire Effects Information System, [Online]. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station, Fire Sciences Laboratory (Producer).
  2. Costanza, K.K.L., Livingston, W.H., Kashian, D.M., Slesak, R.A., Tardif, J.C., Dech, J.P., et al. 2017. The precarious state of a cultural keystone species: Tribal and biological assessments of the role and future of black ash. J. For. 115(5). 435-446. doi:10.5849/jof.2016-034R1.
  3. Diamond, A. K., & Emery, M. R. 2011. Black ash (Fraxinus nigra Marsh.): Local ecological knowledge of site characteristics and morphology associated with basket-grade specimens in New England (USA). Econ. Bot. 65(4). 422-426. doi:10.1007/s12231-011-9174-z.
  4. Siegert, N. W., McCullough, D. G., Luther, T., Benedict, L., Crocker, S., Church, K., and Banks, J. 2023. Biological invasion threatens keystone species indelibly entwined with indigenous cultures. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment. In Press.
  5. Siegert, N. W., Engelken, P. J., & McCullough, D. G. 2021. Changes in demography and carrying capacity of green ash and black ash ten years after emerald ash borer invasion of two ash-dominant forests. For. Ecol. Manage. 494. 119335. doi:10.1016/j.foreco.2021.119335.
  6. Klooster W. S, Gandhi K. J. K, Long L. C., et al. 2018. Ecological impacts of emerald ash borer in forests at the epicenter of the invasion in North America. Forests 9: 250. doi:10.3390/f9050250.

This Website provides reliable, objective and timely information from researchers, personnel affiliated with numerous universities, state and federal agencies, educators and outreach specialists in the USA and Canada. Information is reviewed and approved by the website content managers and researchers affiliated with the Michigan State University Dept. of Entomology, the Dept. of Forestry and MSU Extension. Our goal is to help you find answers to questions about EAB, either directly or through links we provide to many other EAB-related websites. Please check this site often because information changes frequently. Funding to support this website is provided by the USDA Forest Service.

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