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The Monday Garden
Ailanthus: Tree of Heaven and Brooklyn

Issue No. 86 - November 16, 2003
by Sue Sweeney

The tree that grows in Brooklyn also likes Stamford's Cove Island.   As a long-time Brooklyn resident, I have a particular fondness for the  "Tree of Heaven",  ailanthus altissima.

Ailanthus is also known as "The "Brooklyn Tree" for the book A Tree Grows in Brooklyn where the determination of the Chinese-immigrant Ailanthus to survive and flourish despite all odds gave inspiration to immigrants of the human species.  

Ailanthus is a very fast growing tree that provides dappled shade and thrives just about anywhere, even in polluted areas.   In China, it's prized as a host for silkworms and for its medicinal properties.  Ailanthus was first imported into North America, they say in the 1700's, and today grows from Argentina north into Canada.   Since it grows so fast, its wood is too soft to have much industrial use and the trees tend to live only 25 to 30 years but can reach 60 to 100 feet in height.  It spreads by underground shoots as well as winged seeds, so ailanthus groves like that pictured above at Stamford's Cove Island are common. 

Ailanthus is invasive and, graceful as it is, it should be controlled, particularly the female plants which send out the seeds. (The males flowers are said to have a strong order that some find disagreeable).   They say ailanthus competes with native species and recent studies show that it uses chemical warfare, like the meadow killer, spotted knapweed (Issue 77)  to kill off at least 35 other plant species.

Ailanthus, pictured (below) last summer near the Cove Island marina, has tropical-looking palm-like leaves about 1' to 3' long with 11 to 13 leaflets; the branches are stubby.

This makes a young ailanthus easy to confuse with our native staghorn sumac, rhus tyhina in its fall colors, also at Cove Island (below).

The Staghorn sumac, no relation to poison sumac, is important source of food for the wild critters including skunks, songbirds, grouse, deer, and rabbits.  The staghorn sumac seldom grows higher than 15', so you can count on the tall ones being ailanthus.

Other differences:

  • Ailanthus leaves are  smooth-edged, often with a single lobe at the bottom; staghorn sumac leaves are toothed.
  • Ailanthus has red and gold clusters of winged seeds; staghorn sumac has fuzzy berries that go from lime to deep red.
  • Ailanthus turns tan in the fall; staghorn sumac turns red, ranging into purples and oranges.
  • Ailanthus bud scars are shield-shaped; staghorn sumac are U-shaped.
  • Ailanthus bark is smooth with vertical streaks on older trees; staghorn sumacs have horizontal streaks.
  • In winter, staghorn sumac twigs are covered with velvet, likes deer antlers, hence the name.

Staghorn sumac berries are so high in tannin that they can be used for tanning.  The Native Americas made a lemonade-like drink from them.  The European colonists reportedly used sumacs to make ink.   The branches are easy to hollow out and use as temporary pipes or the like.

From The Monday Garden. Copyright © by Sue Sweeney. Reproduced with permission. 

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