Tree of Heaven or tree of Hell?

‘A Tree Grows In Brooklyn’ documents the resiliency and invasiveness of the common but typically undesirable tree of Heaven, Ailanthus altissima. Once a single female tree get established, the extremely prolific seeds get everywhere, including cracks in concrete. The resulting seedlings conquer wherever they are not dug out. If cut down, they just resprout from the roots.

Male trees smell horrible while blooming for about a month in spring or summer. They are pollinated by flies, so naturally smell like what flies like. The tiny yellowish or tan flowers hang on panicles that can be a foot and a half long. Female blooms are not as big, prolific or objectionably fragrant. However, stems, leaves and all other parts of both genders smell rotten when handled.

Tree of Heaven, which has earned the alternative names of ‘tree of Hell’, ‘stink tree’, ‘ghetto elm’ and ‘ghetto palm’, is no longer a tree that gets planted by choice. It is typically a tree that plants itself, and on rare occasion, happens to grow into a good situation. They should not be allowed to overwhelm more desirable trees, or get too close to concrete or other damageable features.

Young trees grow very fast to about forty feet tall. Older and slower trees do not get much taller, although sheltered trees can get twice as tall, with elegant gray bark. They do not live much more than fifty years. The big pinnately compound leaves are surprisingly pretty. On vigorous shoots, individual leaves can get as long as two and a half feet, with leaflets as long as six inches.


12 thoughts on “Tree Of Heaven

    1. Several species will do it. This just happens to be one of the more common. They are also difficult to kill than the others, so are likely to regenerate and damage the concrete after getting cut down a few times.

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  1. My parents planted this tree by their driveway. I think they thought with a name like that it must be a wonderful tree to have. It wasn’t. Someone chopped it down after about 15 years. It got to be annoying having to pick up all those stems, leaves and branches year after year.

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      1. I try to grow plants that I dislike so that I can experience what others like about them. This is one that I make exception for. I suppose I should try it. There were a few of one of the cultivars at the arboretum, but I just ignored them because I disliked them so much. I should have worked with them while I had the chance.


  2. We have these horrible trees growing all over in the lower section of our property. For years I cut and dowsed with Tordon. But alas, they are still prolific and difficult to control. We call them trees from hell also. They’re ugly but I hadn’t noticed the stink!

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    1. You are fortunate. Vigorous new shoots that develop from stumps do not bloom. A grove of many naturalized trees indicates that at least one tree bloomed at one time. However, it may have died after the seedlings got established, and it may take several years for seedlings to mature enough to bloom. If they get cut down, the process starts over again, so it takes a few more years for them to bloom.

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