Northwoods basketmakers know black ash (Fraxinus nigra) well. In Maine, for instance, this tree of the swamps was cut, pounded, and peeled into thin, strong, bendable strips to form the state's field-worthy potato baskets. Portaging canoeists, hunters, and trappers traditionally hunkered under the load of reliable packbaskets made of "basket" ash.
Although never a cherished target of lumbermen because of its comparatively small size, the black ash rates as unique because its dark-brown heartwood occupies nearly the entire girth of its trunk, leaving little room for lighter-colored sapwood. And in its springtime rush to grow, the tree puts on a layer of large-pored earlywood. It's this band that cleanly cleaves from the latewood, providing the thin, tough, and durable strips that craftsmen turn into baskets, woven chair seats, and once upon a time, the hoops that held together the staves of wooden barrels.
Native to the northern wetlands, the black ash shares its soggy habitat with other water-loving trees, such as tamarack and black spruce. Few trees, though, can match its aggressiveness in sending out a massive root system. A fierce competitor, the tree sucks up water and nutrients at a rate that, over the long run, other trees can't match. So the black ash has few close neighbors. In fact, the tree's great demand for water eventually leaves it high and dry. Swamps occupied for decades by black ash become shallower, creating fertile conditions for successor trees like basswood, elm, and red maple that can't stand getting their "feet" wet.
Illustration: Jim Stevenson