Description & Overview

Nothing else looks quite like Prickly Ash. This super-hardy, aromatic, thorny native sticks out like a sore thumb, which is what you’ll have if you don’t look before you touch! Thick thorns line the bark. The leaves are ash-like and distinctive in that they are compound and glossy. The red fruit clusters are aromatic and when they mature in late summer there is no way to misidentify Prickly Ash.

Prickly Ash may also be known as Common Prickly Ash or Northern Prickly Ash.

Core Characteristics

Category: Tree

Wisconsin Native: Yes

USDA Hardiness Zone: to zone 3

Mature Height: 15-20 feet

Mature Spread: 15 feet

Growth Rate: Fast

Growth Form: Suckering shrub or small tree

Light Requirements: Full Sun to Partial Shade

Site Requirements: Thin, lean soils. Does well in woods, and moist thickets, but also on hilltops and bluffs.

Flower: Yellowish, small, dioecious, and fragrant

Bloom Period: Mid – late Spring May

Foliage: Dark green, semi - glossy, compound, up to 13 leaflets, slightly pubescent underside, ash - like, have oil glands on the leaves and are aromatic when crushed; typical for plants in the citrus family

Fall Color: Yellow, not that great

Urban Approved: No

Fruit Notes: ¼" Red fruit capsule, black seed ripens in July/August, aromatic, pepper - like flavor

Suggested Uses

Prickly Ash may not be everyone’s cup of tea due to the rather large thorns. You may not want to casually plant this tree in a space where, say, you will be playing a game of tackle football. That said, really, Prickly Ash is remarkable and rather decorative. The compound leaves and clusters of red capsules also add to the look, providing a fair bit of visual diversity, as there is nothing that looks like Prickly Ash.

Hedgerow/Barrier: This would make an interesting and beautiful hedgerow. As a bonus, whoever, or whatever, tries to push its way through will regret it.

Erosion Control: Prickly Ash is naturally found in a wide range of sites, including ones with thin, poor soil. This, along with its propensity to sucker would make this a good choice for a slope or a bluff.

Restoration/Butterfly Habitat: Prickly Ash plays a natural role in ecological succession by colonizing old fields and pastures that are being restored into woodland, all the while supporting many forms of wildlife. If the thought of having a thorny, suckering tree taking over your restoration project gives you pause, consider this, Prickly Ash is quite intolerant of shade, once the oaks and hickories grow up the Prickly Ash will be shaded out, leaving behind a restored woodland.

Nothing else looks quite like Prickly Ash. This super-hardy, aromatic, thorny native sticks out like a sore thumb, which is what you'll have if you do…

Wildlife Value

Prickly ash, along with Hop Tree (Ptelea trifoliata), are the only two plants in Wisconsin that are host plants for the Giant Swallowtail (Papilio cresphontes); the largest butterfly in North America. This alone makes it a worthy addition to any nature lover’s yard!

This dioecious plant is mostly pollinated by short- and long-tongued bees, beetles, and flies. Interestingly, bees usually feed on pollen and nectar on staminate (male) flowers, while on pistillate (female) flowers, all insects opt for nectar. Leafhoppers feed on the sap of prickly ash.

The red fruit capsule is enjoyed by Red-eyed Vireos, chipmunks, bobwhites, thrushes, Grey Catbirds, mockingbirds, Cottontail rabbits, and White-tailed Deer.

Songbirds, quail, rabbits, and more covet Prickly Ash for habitat and cover.

Maintenance Tips

To grow Prickly Ash as a single-stem tree suckers can be removed by mowing or pruning. Gloves should be used to remove them by hand. If you happen to have goats, they can do the job for you! But then you would need to protect the tree.

Nothing else looks quite like Prickly Ash. This super-hardy, aromatic, thorny native sticks out like a sore thumb, which is what you'll have if you do…

Pests/Problems

Black Walnut Tolerant: Yes
Deer Resistant: Yes
Rabbit Resistant: Yes

No serious diseases or pest problems. If you are lucky enough to wind up with Giant Swallowtail caterpillars on the leaves they may cause some defoliation. Just think how lucky the Giant Swallowtail is that you happened to plant the plant it was looking for.

Leaf Lore

Native Americans used Prickly Ash to treat a wide range of ailments. As a tonic, it’s been used to treat rheumatism, fevers, carbuncles, and toothache, in fact, it has also been called the ‘Toothache Tree,’ as chewing on the bark has supposedly been helpful in this regard.

Mesquakie people used the bark and berries as a strong expectorant, stopping hemorrhages and treating tuberculosis. The inner bark was boiled, along with other native woody roots, and administered to regain strength after illness.

Prickly Ash belongs to the family Rutaceae, the same family as citrus fruits.

The genus Zanthoxylum can be broken down to find its meaning. ‘Xanthos’ for “yellow” and ‘xylon’ for “wood.” Other plants do have thorns, like Black Locust, so this is a good indicator for plant identification.

Companion Plants

Spikenard (Aralia racemosa), Bladdernut (Staphylea trifolia), Wild Sarsaparilla (Aralia nudicaulis), Oaks (Quercus spp)., Hickory (Carya spp.), and Canadian Columbine (Aquilegia canadensis) all naturally coexist as understory woodland plants.

Quaking Aspen (Populus tremuloides), Glossy Black Chokeberry (Aronia melanocarpa var. elata), Gray Dogwood (Cornus racemosa), Early Wild Rose (Rosa blanda), Staghorn Sumac (Rhus typhina), Dwarf Honeybush Honeysuckle (Diervilla lonicera)-all have a similar suckering tendency. If the intention is to naturalize an area with hardy Wisconsin natives that will spread, then these are all solid choices.

Chokecherry (Prunus virginiana), Nannyberry Viburnum (Viburnum lentago), Glossy Black Chokeberry (Aronia melanocarpa var. elata), American Elderberry (Sambucus canadensis), Limber Honeysuckle (Lonicera dioica), Pale Purple Coneflower (Echinacea pallida), Winterberry (Ilex verticillata), and American Bittersweet (Celastrus scandens) are all great additions to Prickly Ash for a bird-friendly habitat.

Nothing else looks quite like Prickly Ash. This super-hardy, aromatic, thorny native sticks out like a sore thumb, which is what you'll have if you do…
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Written by Beth DeLain