Biography of Durham’s Finest Tree* No. 9: Main Street East White Ash (Fraxinus Americana)

The 2016 Durham’s Finest Tree nominations were evaluated in the fall of 2016. The winners were announced at the Trees Over Durham Forum on April 24th, 2017 in the Durham Arts Center. Of the sixteen trees nominated, seven met the criteria of a fine example of a tree species due to their size, historical importance or other meritorious significance.

The White Ash (Fraxinus Americana) located in front of St. Philip’s Episcopal Church at 403 East Main Street and across the street from the newly completed Durham County Human Services Complex in the Downtown East neighborhood won in the Historical Category.

Main Street East White Ash  Photo taken by Wendy Diaz on October 29 2016

Main Street East White Ash Description    

The Main Street East White Ash is only 54 feet high but has a broad trunk with a circumference of 146 inches and a canopy spread of 65 feet.  There is a pronounced curve in its trunk and its gray bark has the characteristic diamond-shaped ridges of mature White Ash trees.  As a city street tree without competition and only having to survive stresses of the urban rather than forest environment, it has developed a very interesting shape due to the curved upper branches that foresters refer to as ‘wolfy’.  This term is defined as a tree ‘which occupies more space in the forest than its value justifies’ and is usually older and branchier than other trees3.  The tree also is fairly large for its urban environment but its significance is not due to its size as it does not match the North Carolina Champion Tree height of over 100 feet4 or even 2015 Durham’s Finest Trees winning tree No. 3 of the same species of about 90 feet height5; nevertheless it is exceptional for its estimated age and association and proximity to a Durham Historical Landmark Church.

Curve in Main Street East White Ash trunk.  Photo taken by Wendy Diaz on October 29, 2016
Gray bark and pronounced ridges of White Ash trunk.
Photo taken by Wendy Diaz on October 29, 2016
Wolfy’ shape of Main Street East White Ash refers to its very curved limbs. Photo taken by Wendy Diaz on October 29, 2016
Photos taken by Wendy Diaz on October 29, 2016



A Serious Threat to Ash Trees**

This grand old occupant of downtown Durham is in danger of the southerly migration of the Emerald Ash Borer (EAB) from northern states.  The tiny iridescent green EAB, is a native of Asia, and was first discovered in southeastern Michigan in 2002.  It has taken just over a decade to reach North Carolina in 2013 by way of Virginia6.  Typically, the EAB will kill an ash tree within 3 to 5 years after the tree is infested3.  It has already killed almost every ash tree species in Ontario and Quebec, Canada and is present in most states east of the Mississippi River7.  Female EABs lay eggs in bark crevasses and when the tiny larvae hatch they chew through the outer bark and then the inner bark.  The EAB bores into the sapwood and feeds on this tissue under the bark resulting in the tree loosing its ability to transfer food and water between the roots and leaves7.  The feeding larvae disrupt the transport systems of the tree by creating winding tunnels (galleries) in the sapwood7.  In late spring, the EAB begins to emerge from the ash wood as a mature beetle and will feed on the leaves and reproduce.  To track the pest, The City of Durham is placing sticky traps at known stands of ash8.  These traps mimic the attractive scent that the distressed ash trees emit that is irresistible to the EAB.  If the presence of EAB is confirmed then the City of Durham is eligible to receive parasitoid wasps from the N.C Forest Service, which will eat the EAB larvae and slow the spread of EAB.  In 2014, the pest was found in Durham County but has not been trapped within the city limits, yet8. It was announced on September 10, 2015 that the entire state was under quarantine for the emerald ash borer.

The Main Street East White Ash may well become a rarity in our county, if it survives.  It is no longer recommended that ash trees be planted as shade or street trees in our North American cities.  Unlike in the Northeast, Ash trees were rarely planted as street trees in Durham and it is estimated that only six per cent of Durham trees are ash and most are located in floodplains and along streams8.  Please protect the Main Street East White Ash and our existing ash trees by remembering to only use local firewood.  This will prevent unintentional transport of these pests to other stands and please report dying ash trees (initially the top of crown thins and partially dies) to the North Carolina Forest Service:

Local History

The original St. Philips Episcopal Church was a wood structure built in 1880 and in 1906 this structure was moved to the side of the new Gothic Revival church completed in 1908, which was designed by Ralph Adams Cram, the same architect who designed the St. John the Divine Cathedral in New York City1. St. Philips Episcopal Church is the oldest remaining church in downtown Durham1 and the church stands at its original location and is a Durham historical landmark2. A young tree resembling the Main Street East Ash Tree can be seen at the front of the church in an old photograph dated to the early 20th century. This uniquely shaped old tree could date back to the completion of the church in 1908, which gives it an age of 110 years old! This Durham centenarian witnessed the transformation of this corner of downtown Durham from a residential to commercial center and is an asset to the urban environment it currently inhabits. It would be a loss for the downtown Durham streetscape if it were a victim of the Emerald Ash Borer.

Immature Main Street East White Ash in foreground, circa early 20th century (photo courtesy of Durham Public Library)1
Immature Main Street East White Ash tree visible along the left side of the postcard. (Postcard downloaded from the Open Durham website1)


  7. Invasive Exotic Insects Threatening Our Native ForestsEmerald Ash Borer in North Carolina by Catherine Bollinger  North Carolina Botanical Garden Conservation Gardener Magazine; Spring & Summer 2016
  8. Durham Now Monitoring for New Invasive Tree Pest, by Alex Johnson, Urban Forestry Manager, General Services Department, City of Durham. Herald-Sun Newspaper, Sunday, May 8, 2016
  9. May 18, 2017 & August 10, 2017
  10. Four win in Durham’s Finest Trees contest” The Herald Sun-The Durham Herald, Durham, North Carolina Sunday, August 7, 2016 Page 6 (correction published on August 8, 2016)

* Durham’s Finest Trees program recognizes significant trees in Durham County, promotes discovery and ability to identify trees, and helps preserve the best examples of specific tree species, particularly native and those trees well adapted to Durham County. The program also promotes awareness of trees in our community and hopes to catalog fine examples of magnificent specimens of trees due to their size, setting, historical importance, or significant feature.

Durham naturalists and tree lovers of all ages are invited to submit their nominations for significant trees in Durham County now through October 1, 2018 for this year’s competition. The nomination period for 2017 is now closed. Trees on private or public property can be nominated in each of the three categories: largest, historical, or meritorious. Preference will be given to native North Carolina tree species. Non-native trees may be considered if they are of a species, subspecies, variety or cultivar proven to be relatively long-lived and well adapted to North Carolina. Winning trees nominated in 2017 will be recognized on Durham’s Arbor Day in 2018. Please read the official rules before submitting a nomination.

Durham’s Finest Trees awarded recognition to seven trees last spring as part of the Trees Over Durham Forum on April 24, 2017 held at the Durham Arts Council9. On March 6, 2016, four Durham trees (nominated in the 2015, the first year of the Durham’s Finest Tree program) located across the city and county were recognized for their size and significance during Durham’s Arbor Day ceremony at the Museum of Life and Science.10

** A version of this text first appeared in the Master Gardener blog post of May 20, 2016 and is included here because of this serious threat to the White Ash species.