Dear Readers, some people might dispute whether this common London street tree is actually a tree of hell rather than heaven, largely because male trees have enormous leaves that smell of old trainers. Lovely! The tree also reproduces with abandon, and suckers pop up in cracks in the pavement, in drains, in patches of wasteland and anywhere with a tiny bit of soil. Nonetheless, this is an extremely resilient if short-lived street tree – it shrugs off pollution, drought, graffiti and general misuse happily for the roughly seventy years that it lives, and I think it’s actually rather graceful and attractive. The leaves, which can grow to 60-70 cms long look like those of a giant ash tree, and the seeds can be orange, yellow, rust-coloured or even bright red. As the male flowers also have that delightful odour of sweaty feet, it’s not surprising that most trees planted in urban settings (like the one opposite Martin School in East Finchley, above) are female.
Tree of Heaven originated in China, and was first planted in the UK in the late 18th Century when there was a fashion for all things Chinese. Once the trees’ reproductive enthusiasm was noted, it was abandoned in favour of the London Plane, until the pollution levels of industrial London killed off most smaller trees, and it started to be planted again. Ada Salter, who became Mayor of Bermondsey in 1922, was determined to make her desperately-deprived borough more beautiful, and succeeded in planting over 7000 Trees of Heaven, a number not to be exceeded until the urban tree. planting boom that’s happening at the moment. Most of the planted trees will not be Trees of Heaven, but I note that a new one was planted alongside the statue of Ada Salter that was set up in Bermondsey Spa Gardens.
Ecologically, Tree of Heaven has another trick up its ‘sleeve’ – it produces a chemical called ailanthone, which inhibits the growth of other plants in the vicinity, but which doesn’t impact upon its own seedlings. Plants that produce these chemicals are called allelopathic, and it’s clearly a great advantage to invasive plants: another species which can lessen the success of competitors is garlic mustard, which might explain why it takes over so easily in new environments. In addition, the leaves are eaten by the Spotted Lanternfly, which is indigenous to China and parts of Vietnam but which has been imported into North America, where it is now cheerfully munching its way through fruit trees, grape vines and timber in addition to Tree of Heaven.
Tree of Heaven has a long cultural history too – it is the tree in ‘A Tree Grows in Brooklyn’ by Betty Smith. See if you can spot the metaphor…
“There’s a tree that grows in Brooklyn. Some people call it the Tree of Heaven. No matter where its seed falls, it makes a tree which struggles to reach the sky. It grows in boarded up lots and out of neglected rubbish heaps. It grows up out of cellar gratings. It is the only tree that grows out of cement. It grows lushly…survives without sun, water, and seemingly earth. It would be considered beautiful except that there are too many of it.”
And in Chinese stories, a mature Tree of Heaven represents an ideal father, while a stump represents a spoiled child. Apparently (and this not something my mother ever scolded me with), it’s perfectly fine to call a careless child a ‘good-for-nothing ailanthus stump sprout’.
And finally, I realise that it’s been a while since we’ve had a poem, so here we go: this one, by Naomi Long Madgett, seems to sum up the Tree of Heaven’s tenacity. I do think it has rather more redeeming features than Madgett seems to think, but then I’ve always loved tough, adaptable, ‘common’ plants. This is the Wednesday Weed, after all.
Tree of Heaven
Naomi Long Madgett
I will live.
The ax’s angry edge against my trunk
cannot deny me. Though I thunder down
to lie prostrate among exalted grasses
that do not mourn me, I will rise.
I will grow:
Persistent roots deep-burrowed in the earth
avenge my fall. Tentacles will shoot out swiftly
in all directions, stubborn leaves explode their force
into the sun. I will thrive.
Curse of the orchard, blemish of the land’s fair
I have grown strong for strength denied, for struggle
in hostile woods. I keep alive by being troublesome,
indestructible, stinkweed of truth.