Monday, September 6, 2010

It's not Poison Ivy

As I was surveying which native species were growing successfully under my Norway Maple (for a future blog post), I came across many seedlings with ‘leaves of three.’ I thought, #Golly#, Poison Ivy! On closer examination, I realized that these were growing as individual plants, not a vine and the leaf shape, with its entire, unlobed margins, just wasn’t quite right for poison ivy. After checking some field guides and looking for similar plants growing in the area, I found out that these were seedlings of Wafer Ash, Ptelea trifoliata. The parent plant was growing behind the garage in an area I rarely paid any attention to.

Wafer Ash, also known as Hop Tree or Stinking Ash, is native to the Southeastern and Midwestern States, its native range does not extend up to Massachusetts, but it is listed as hardy to zone 5A.  I’m not sure how this tree got into my yard.  It’s not commonly used in the landscape trade and with a name like ‘Stinking Ash’ it’s not likely to be popular.  This name refers to the musky odor of its bark and leaves when crushed.  In this case, the name is a bit deceiving; I find that, while not pleasant, it does not smell as bad as something like wild Black Cherry.
Wafer Ash grows as a large shrub or small understory tree with irregular branching, usually growing to about 20 feet in height. The seedlings put down a tap root that can make them difficult to pull up.  It is native to dry rocky uplands and is very tolerant of shade. These two features make it suitable for growing under a Norway Maple, with its dense network of thirsty roots and dense shade canopy. Wafer Ash prefers neutral soils and is listed as deer highly resistant and tolerant of salt and ‘mine spoils’. The only conditions it does not tolerate are soil compaction and flooding.

This tree blooms in early to mid-June in the Boston area with terminal clusters of yellow-green, sweet smelling flowers. (Some sources list flower scent as unpleasant, but I found it quite nice and detectable several yards away.) The tree serves as a larval host for Eastern Tiger Swallowtail and Giant Swallowtail butterflies and is generally attractive to birds and pollinating insects. For more photos and information check out this link to the Wildflower Center.

The name ‘Hop Tree’ refers to its use in earlier times as a hop substitute in the brewing of beer. The dried seed pods (samara) can be decorative. My experience under the Maple and elsewhere in my yard is that these seeds high viability and offspring can appear just about anywhere. I don’t know if their spread is a result of being blown around naturally or from being caught up and thrown around by the lawn mower.

In my experience, the Wafer Ash is an excellent North American native understory tree with high wildlife value for dry, shady conditions. While it not commonly available in the landscape trade, there are a few commercial sources. Lacking that, I’ve got a bunch growing in my backyard. (You can reach me through the Adams Garden fan page on Facebook.)


Heather Holm said...

What a great native plant discovery!

I planted Wafer Ash last year and it is doing wonderfully in my dry part shade woodland. It has not yet flowered so I'm looking forward to those papery samaras.

Another similar 3 leaved native understory tree that I bought thinking I was buying the Wafer Ash is the American Bladdernut (Staphylea trifolia). I find it likes a medium to moist location.

Restoring The Landscape With Native Plants

Laurrie said...

Fascinating... and a great research project! What are you doing with the volunteers under the maple... can they stay there or will they get too big? I'm forever saving / moving little volunteer saplings I find, but they are mostly silver maples. Haven't found anything as unusual as your little "hop" ash.

Curbstone Valley Farm said...

How fun that it volunteered! I'm not sure I'd intentionally plant it as a hop substitute, especially as good brewing hops do so well here, but if I lived on the east coast, I would consider it if it's a larval food source for swallowtails!

Curtis said...

I will need to remove these seedlings, as they are growing in the 'wrong' place from a design perspective. I will probably pot up a couple to be moved elsewhere. The rest will just be editted out.