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
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
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.
- 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
- 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.