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Tree of Heaven

Plant of the Week

Tree of Heaven
Latin: Ailanthus altissima

No photo available.

Few trees have played a prominent role in literature, but in Betty Smith's 1943 classic "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn," the Tree of Heaven is used as a metaphor to represent the plight of the poor immigrant class during the early years of the 20th century.

She says: "There's a tree that grows in Brooklyn. Some people call it the Tree of Heaven. No matter where its seed falls, it makes a tree which struggles to the reach the sky. It grows in boarded-up lots and out of neglected rubbish heaps. It is the only tree that grows out of cement. It grows lushly. . . survives without sun, water, and seemingly without earth. It would be considered beautiful except that there are too many of it. That was the kind of tree it was. It liked poor people."

This is a big tree, growing to 60 feet tall with a crown spread of 40 feet. As a seedling or from the thicket of root sprouts that soon follow in the wake of an established tree, a number of umbrella-shaped canes appear which grow rapidly from thumb-size to arm-size.

Its extremely fast growth rate results in weak wood which is subject to wind breakage in storms. Because the tree is not at all twiggy, ice storms seem to bother it little, in spite of its weak wood.

The leaves are coarse, compound and remind one of a black walnut except that new growth has a dark red blush. The male flowers are malodorous as is the foliage when crushed. The Tree of Heaven flowers in early summer and produces a multitude of wafer-like seeds in dense clusters on female trees.

The Tree of Heaven is a Chinese import that first made its way to the West on the back of a camel as it was carried in 1747 from the Imperial court in Peking to St. Petersburg, Russia, during the reign of Peter the Great's youngest daughter Elizabeth.

Seeds of this tree and several others were collected by the first trained botanist-priest allowed in China, Pierre Nicholas D'Incarvillea, who served in Peking from 1740 to 1756. The Tree of Heaven made its way into the United States in 1784 -- probably in the same shipment with another Chinese import -- the Ginkgo.

For a time, the import found favor. During the heyday of the industrial revolution it found acceptance in large cities where the air, polluted with acrid fumes of coal, was unfit for more refined trees. At the beginning of the 20th Century it was commonly recommended as a street tree in our northeastern cities.

Smith's observation about where the Tree of Heaven grows is correct in that it is seldom met within refined quarters. It is a pioneer species that has found a home in most cities of the world where it quickly moves into abandoned or poorly maintained sites where it almost never exists as a single tree but crowded amongst its brethren in a thicket.  While it is primarily found in urban areas, it is occasionally seen in the countryside around old home sites.

In the 1980's Ailanthus was evaluated as a possible source for biomass production where organic waste is converted to alcohol, but that government sponsored program faltered as oil prices returned to low levels.

This tree has no place in the landscape and it has not been offered by the nursery industry during the last 50 years. It can be removed from the landscape by cutting off the tree and painting the stump with Roundup or by having the shallow root system grubbed out.

By: Gerald Klingaman, retired
Extension Horticulturist - Ornamentals
Extension News - June 11, 1999


The University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture does not maintain lists of retail outlets where these plants can be purchased. Please check your local nursery or other retail outlets to ask about the availability of these plants for your growing area.