Sunday, August 26, 2007
Ailanthus altissima, the Tree that Grows in Brooklyn
The ailanthus at 605 Richmond Avenue is nicely shaped and has a trunk diameter of more than two feet.
Ailanthus altissima (tree of heaven) is a Chinese import. Of all the trees imported from China, ailanthus is the most widely naturalized in America.(1) It is a phenomenally successful weed. We associate it with Brooklyn because of its role in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. Ailanthus is the tree of the novel's title, an apt symbol of poor but tough strivers making their way in a harsh environment. What makes ailanthus such a success? It tolerates heat, cold, and urban pollution. It has no trouble at all growing out of cracks in sidewalks, "the only tree that grew out of cement" in the words of the novel. It produces prodigious numbers of seeds. One mature tree can produce 350,000 of them.(2) Ailanthus is a fierce competitor. Its leaves produce a toxin that inhibits the growth of many other plants. Finally, Ailanthus owes part of its success to the fact that it is so hard to get rid of. If you have ever cut one down, you know that the reward for your efforts is several new plants in different spots, each a shoot from the roots of the felled tree.(3) Dan Damon's Plainfield Today recently cited a plausible but fanciful quotation from The Reagan Diaries that had Reagan referring to George W. Bush as a "ne'er-do-well son".(4) Had Reagan been Chinese, he might have called George W a ch'un-ts'ai, a "good-for-nothing ailanthus stump sprout", a common reproach for ne'er-do-well Chinese youths or underachieving students.(5)
Ailanthus has at times enjoyed a better reputation than the one it has now. The tree was used by Frederick Law Olmstead, designer of Central Park (whose firm later designed Plainfield's Cedarbrook Park).(6) Charles Sargent, founder of Harvard's Arnold Arboretum, wrote in 1888, "for hardiness and rapidity of growth, for the power to adapt to the dirt and smoke, the dust and drought of cities, for the ability to thrive in the poorest soil, for beauty and for usefulness, this tree is one of the most useful which can be grown in this climate...."(7) Ailanthus trees are all around town. The females are easy to spot these days because they are laden with seeds.(8) Note 8 below provides clues that will allow you to identify them in any season.
(1) Shiu Ying Hu, Ailanthus, Arnoldia 39: 29-50, 1979.
(2) Arthur Plotnik, The Urban Tree Book, Three Rivers Press, 2000.
(3) Whoever concocted the myth of Antaeus, the giant whose strength redoubled each time that Hercules threw him to the ground, must have known a weed like Ailanthus altissima.
(4) "Myths are stories that are so true they can never happen." Charles Van Doren, quoted in Columbia College Today, September 1999 issue.
(5) Shih Ying Hu, cited above. As ailanthus stump sprout is used as a metaphor for a spoiled youth, mature ailanthus tree is used as a metaphor for a father.
(6) Arthur Plotnik, cited above.
(7) Shih Ying Hu, cited above.
(8) Male and female flowers are borne on separate trees. The female trees bear seeds, visible now. The leaves are compound, made up of multiple leaflets, each about 5 inches in length. When crushed the leaves have an odor that many people find unattractive. Two features allow you to distinguish ailanthuses from similar plants such as walnuts or sumacs. 1) Each ailanthus leaflet has two to four blunt teeth near its base. 2) Although paired, many of the leaflets are not exactly opposite each other. In the winter the large and distinctive leaf scar helps with identification. Click on photos to enlarge.