Thursday, June 5, 2008

Tree-of-Heaven, my arse!

So another mystery solved, dear readers! The annoying yet endearingly tenacious bugger I wrote about previously is Ailanthus altissima. Ailanthus, meet worldwideweb readers; worldwideweb reads meet Ailanthus. You should meet formally, after all, given that if you're in one another's proximity you're bound to become intimate "friends."


Ailanthus altissima also bears the ironic moniker Tree-of-Heaven (which is also, incidentally, a Korean drama!)

Some research reveals that the Tree-of-Heaven was initially imported and PURPOSEFULLY planted by well-meaning, no doubt, but ignorant horticultural enthusiasts in the 1700s. Then they realized it's invasive as hell and, oh yeah, it stinks! It has a significant place in Chinese herbal medicine, according to Wikipedia, being used for its astringent properties in curing mental illness (by way of chopping the root and mixing with young boys' urine and fermented black beans, naturally) as well as baldness and many other things.

Remember what I said about the bag worms really digging this stinky nuisance? Well, in China it's used as a host crop for silk worms! That's probably it's best use, right there. Another awesome thing about Ailanthus is that it synthesizes its very own herbicide which kills off competing plants in the germination phase. Fantastic! The USDA National Agricultural Library categorizes Ailanthus as an "exotic weed" and in some places is listed as a "noxious weed." Given it's "long and rich history" in China, how's that for a downgrade? Ouch!

To be fair the bark of this tree/weed is still used in Chinese medicine and may actually help with asthma and arrhythmias if taken in small quantities. And it is extremely fast growing, which is currently a bane but may eventually prove useful as it makes great firewood (file this in the back of your minds, peak oilers!).

Here are some tidbits from what I read:
"This tree, often incorrectly referred to as stinking sumac, grows along highways, in disturbed areas, in the rocky outcroppings of fields and anywhere else its prolific seeds seem to land.

Tree of Heaven was originally introduced from China as an ornamental tree. You might know it from 'A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.'...Often there will be one or two larger trees surrounded by a legion of these straight and erect seedlings. If you happen to see this tree on your property, do not cut it down. When this tree is cut down, it goes into self-protection mode, sending out dozens of shoots that can sprout up quite a distance away, it seems as far as 50 feet. It will also resprout form the stump." (

From Wikipedia:

"...enthusiasm soon waned after gardeners became familiar with its suckering habits and its foul smelling odour. Despite this, it was used extensively as a street tree during much of the 19th century."
And so there you go. Next mystery - why are caterpillars impervious to diatomaceous earth? Other suggestions?


Tara said...

Okay, now that I've seen the new picture of it that you posted, I can say that that is DEFINITELY what's taking over my yard! I guess I never noticed any bad smell because I never let them get nearly that big. I pull them up right away while they're still tiny. Horrible little buggers, though! Thanks for doing the leg work on that one. :)

Lewru said...

I live to serve.

Xris (Flatbush Gardener) said...

Ailanthus is as common here in Brooklyn as dandelions are elsewhere. It's one of the first weeds that NYC gardeners learn to recognize.

At least half of the plants that become invasive were intentionally introduced through horticulture. Kudzu and Loosestrife are two more well-known examples of this.