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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