Ailanthus altissima

Tree-of-Heaven, ghetto palm, stink tree, Chinese sumac

Description: deciduous tree

Place of origin: central China and Taiwan

Urban habitat: drought tolerant and opportunistic, grows well in full sun as well as shade, on dry rocky or sandy soil; grows along highway and railroad embankments; thrives in cracks between asphalt and concrete; tolerant of a variety of industrial pollutants; reported to contain allelopathic chemicals that suppress growth of nearby plants; death or damage to its main stem usually results in prolific root sprouting; its spreading roots can be found up to 90 ft from its parent stem; its growth has been found to accelerate greatly in high temperature and high CO2 levels found in the summer within urban environments.

Ecological functions: provides heat reduction in paved areas; extremely tolerant of stressful urban conditions including heat buildup, drought, air pollution, and road salt; important for slope stabilization and soil building on degraded land.

History: Ailanthus altissima was introduced into North America three different times (in 1784 in Pennsylvania, in 1820 in New York, and in the mid-1800’s in California) as an ornamental tree and within 50 years had become naturalized in both urban and rural areas across the US and in Hawaii; it has also become naturalized throughout Europe, and has been found in Argentina and Australia. Ailanthus was so common by the early 20th century that it was celebrated in Betty Smith’s 1943 novel, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. In China, Ailanthus bark and leaves are used in traditional Chinese medicine for treatment of diarrhea, dysentery, leukorrhea and tapeworm; contains several anti-malarial compounds.