Nature Notes: 12 March 2012

Accidental discovery: the hidden inner color of Mt Ash

Walking upstream along Nameless Creek in the late afternoon, we were startled by a red flag tacked to a small tree maybe 50 yards ahead of us. Who would have done such a thing? An orange-red rectangle clearly was attached to what, even from that distance, was plainly a mountain ash.

As we got closer, it became clear it was not paper or cloth someone had attached to the tree. It was a segment of bark, still attached along one edge of the rectangle, the remainder held out into the slanting sun like a pinnafore.

Mountain ash are common small trees notable for their bright red berries and for their weak, short-lived trunks that fall over into our trails routinely. No where can I find anything about the bark (other than one source that comments it has a fragrant inner back. I can’t believe I didn’t snort it. I’m truly slipping in my golden years.)

The trunk (with it’s large conspicuous lenticels) is often marked by light-dark-light alternating patches. It seems that it’s the lighter patches that bear the odd orange-red pigment. (I’ll take my knife and peel off more bark in the dark sections to check this out.)

Mt. Ash is not a true ash but a member of the rose family. One source said it hybridized routinely with chokecherry, which I found odd.

The European Mountain Ash is similar, and referred to as the Rowan Tree, and prominent in old mythologies and stylized in various art from the past millennium.

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Fred First holds masters degrees in Vertebrate Zoology and physical therapy, and has been a biology teacher and physical therapist by profession. He moved to southwest Virginia in 1975 and to Floyd County in 1997. He maintains a daily photo-blog, broadcasts essays on the Roanoke NPR station, and contributes regular columns for the Floyd Press and Roanoke's Star Sentinel. His two non-fiction books, Slow Road Home and his recent What We Hold in Our Hands, celebrate the riches that we possess in our families and communities, our natural bounty, social capital and Appalachian cultures old and new. He has served on the Jacksonville Center Board of Directors and is newly active in the Sustain Floyd organization. He lives in northeastern Floyd County on the headwaters of the Roanoke River.

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  1. I have become much more tuned-in to the Mountain Ash tree since my grandson arrived two and one-half years ago. His dad is a silviculturist with the U.S. Forest Service and delighted in naming his firstborn Rowan.

  2. Please relate to your grandson’s father than we had a yellow lab named Tsuga. Not many understood why we picked such an odd name for a pup. Rowan is a lovely name. It impresses me as a name invented by Tolkien for one of his elven kings.