Restoring treasured black ash trees at heart of P.E.I. project 

Efforts are underway to restore Prince Edward Island's population of black ash, a tree that has cultural significance for the Mi'kmaq because it's used to make baskets and musical instruments.

Black ash thought to be rare, but more trees than expected found in eastern P.E.I.

C.J. Cleal is forestry manager for the Abegweit Conservation Society of Abegweit First Nation, and one of the leads of the black ash project. (Shane Hennessey/CBC )

C.J. Cleal has gone for some interesting walks in the woods this summer in search of black ash trees — part of an P.E.I.-wide project to preserve the species, which is culturally significant for the Mi'kmaq. 

As part of the project, individual black ash trees are being surveyed and mapped using GPS, and will be regularly inspected for seed production.

The second phase of the project involves growing the seeds in nurseries and planting 2,000 black ash seedlings across the province.

"The idea is to replenish the population of black ash because it has been depleted over the last hundred years or so," said Cleal, who is forestry manager for the Abegweit Conservation Society. 

Cleal said black ash produce seeds only every seven to nine years, after the female trees are fertilized with pollen from nearby male trees. (Shane Hennessey/CBC )

"It has a very complex reproductive process, so with all the clear-cutting and deforestation, it is having a very hard time to prosper."

Cleal said the black ash produces seed only every seven to nine years. It also needs a mate, as there are male and female trees, and pollen has to spread from one to the other. 

Survey success

Cleal said the mapping project has been successful in eastern P.E.I., with team members discovering more black ash than they had anticipated. 

"In the east end, it was thought to be very rare, but we've found up to 200 black ash, so that's pretty good," he said.

"We go out to sites and we collect a lot of data. It's quite an adventure if you don't mind your feet getting wet. There's swamps and bugs beyond belief."

Black ash trees thrive in wet places with low drainage. (Shane Hennessey/CBC )

The survey work has included some great moments of discovery, said Cleal.

"Sometimes we walk five to six kilometres through pretty harsh swamps, and one time, we were in the middle of a swamp and we couldn't find it," he said.

"I looked up, and it was the biggest black ash tree I've ever seen. Yeah, it was cool."

Cleal said the black ash has special significance for the Mi'kmaq and for him personally, because he knows a lot of basket makers.

For future generations, it will be imperative that we increase the population​​​.—C.J. Cleal, Abegweit Conservation Society 

He is also a powwow singer, and uses a ji'kmaqn, an instrument made out of black ash, which is played by tapping it against a hand or knee. 

"We make some musical instruments with it, and it's our main source for baskets," Cleal said. "For future generations, it will be imperative that we increase the population."

A ji'kmaqn is an instrument made out of black ash, played by tapping it against a hand or knee. (Oscar Baker III/CBC)

'Incredibly important tree'

Daniel McRae, from the Macphail Woods Ecological Forestry Project, helped with the survey work this summer. 

Staff at Macphail are also aiding with propagation of the black ash, and looking after the seedlings. 

"They're an incredibly important tree ecologically, and obviously historically for the Mi'kmaq," McRae said.

"They were never a crazy common tree on P.E.I. They don't grow crazy big, so they were never a forestry thing. It's one of those trees that fell off the radar."

Daniel McRae of the Macphail Woods Ecological Forestry Project says the black ash is an 'incredibly important tree,' both ecologically and culturally. (Shane Hennessey/CBC )

The spread of the emerald ash borer east has added urgency to efforts to revitalize the black ash population, said McRae.

"A lot of it is we just don't know. We don't have great records on where they were — which gives you a lot of walking to do, to try to find if that tree is still there," he said. 

Cleal says black ash was thought to be very rare in eastern P.E.I., but they have found sites with up to 200 of the trees. (Shane Hennessey/CBC )

 McRae said black ash trees thrive in wet places and low-drainage areas, and that has guided their exploration. 

"[At] some of the sites we found 40 or 50 trees, like a little pocket population, and to our knowledge unrecorded," he said.

"So that's been really neat."

Spring planting

McRae said they will spend the winter analyzing the data, once the field season is over. 

"Right now, we're at that point where we're going, 'There's more than we thought,'" McRae said. 

"I'm not going to say [it's] a healthy.population; many of those woods have been cut. So it's not perfect. But there's definitely more numbers out there than we thought."

Survey work and tree planting is also taking place in western P.E.I., led by Lennox Island First Nation. 

Keptin James Bernard of Lennox Island demonstrates Mi'kmaq basket-making at an event in Charlottetown in August 2021. (Danny Arsenault/CBC)

McRae said they will plant the seedlings in eastern P.E.I. in the spring, after seeking out strategic sites. 

"We're going to try to pick some new sites where black ash could grow, because the habitat is right," he said.

"We're going to try to pick some sites that have some black ash, but could really use a bump in the population. And then we're also going to look at planting some of the healthier sites, because obviously if black ash is already doing well, adding more, they're going to thrive."


Nancy Russell has been a reporter with CBC since 1987, in Whitehorse, Winnipeg, Toronto and Charlottetown. When not on the job, she spends her time on the water or in the gym rowing, or walking her dog.