The tree of heaven


I have written enough about carnivorous plants and poisonous plants. Let’s talk about something more pleasant.

I see the Tree of Heaven (Ailanthus altissima) every summer day in the streets and alleys of Providence. It’s everywhere in the eastern United States, and thrives in cities. It is a weed, believe it or not; it grows wherever it can – up through cracks in the pavement, if that’s all it can find. It can grow six feet a year. I don’t know if you’re familiar with the old book/movie “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn,” but the title tree is A. altissima; it keeps bursting through the street, and no one can stop it.

I’ve never noticed (maybe I haven’t gotten close enough), but apparently it smells bad. T. S. Eliot, in the “Four Quartets,” refers to “the rank ailanthus of the April dooryard.” The Chinese word for the tree, chouchun, means literally “stink tree.”

Ah well, we can’t all smell like lilac or lavender, can we?

Ailanthus can reach tremendous heights, or it can be a shrub. It loves sunlight, but can tolerate shade when it has to. It likes rich soil best, but tolerates nasty environments too, and can grow in soil with the acidity of tomato juice. (Such a lot of things I learn from Wikipedia!)

The Chinese use it medicinally, to treat mental illness; the shaved root is mixed with boys’ urine and fermented soybeans, allowed to sit for a while, then strained. The bark contains an acknowledged antimalarial substance.

Most importantly of all: I like the tree of heaven. A few blocks from here, there used to be a vacant lot full of ailanthus, at least twenty feet high, in full sunlight. I loved them, though I knew they were squatters and that their time was probably short. Sure enough, they were cut down to make way for a Starbucks.

Starbucks coffee cannot be used to combat malaria, or mental illness, not even if you mix it with boys’ urine and fermented soybeans.

I would like my grove of ailanthus back.


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About Loren Williams
Gay, partnered, living in Providence, working at a local university. Loves: books, movies, TV. Comments and recriminations can be sent to futureworld@cox.net.

2 Responses to The tree of heaven

  1. starproms says:

    We have that here in England too and it is very invasive. I didn’t know as much about it though and for sure I’m going to avoid Chinese medicine having read that about it. There seem to be two types of this plant, one with red ‘flowers’ and one without. I’m not sure of the difference. I once planted one in my garden (silly me) and it kept popping up everywhere, through the grass, in the borders – everywhere. Definitely a tree for wasteland and not in the cultivated garden!

    • Well, that’s the downside of a “weed” tree: you just can’t stop it. Like Japanese knotweed: I never used to notice it, and now I see it everywhere, and I know how hard it is to get rid of it.

      This is one of the few reasons I’m glad not to have a garden of my own: I can admire everything – even weeds in someone else’s garden – without pain. If they were in my own garden, I’d hate them like poison.

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