Tree of Heaven (Ailanthus altissima)

The tree of heaven (Ailanthus altissima), one of the most adaptable and notoriously “invasive” species in the world, earned its nickname “ghetto palm” for its propensity to grow in disturbed and neglected areas. Ailanthus altissima doesn’t seem to care much about climate and grows just about everywhere–hot, cold, humid, dry–with the exception of Homegrown Evolution’s temporary residence in the Swedish Arctic. Odds are you’ve got one of these supertrees busting up through some nearby broken asphalt.

One of my hosts, Swedish artist Ingo Vetter, is a member of a unique artists collective, the Detroit Tree of Heaven Woodshop, that has experimented with using the wood of this abundant tree. While not easy to work with (it tends to warp quickly), they’ve managed to produce some remarkable objects:

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  1. Ack, those things are awful! As soon as I see one of those breeding near my property it gets chopped like the wood bearing stepchild it is!

    they also stink.

    • Chopping them down sends a chemical signal to the root system telling it to shoot up more trees. be careful.

  2. We have a huge one pruned into a natural shade umbrella in our backyard–we picnic beneath it, and love it. Our daughter shakes the petals loose, and dances under the “fairy snow” as they fall.

  3. Gah, bane of my existence! The uninhabited lot next door has a 30′ specimen ON our property line, that’s heaving my garage floor a good 15′ away and 6 feet below their grade level. They come up EVERYWHERE. I abhor them. A smaller specimen near the front of the property has extended roots under my driveway and across my lawn to reach the septic tank leach field…

  4. I can’t stand to see this tree actually cultivated in older yards in the area (like 100 years plus). Such an obnoxious weed! I have never heard it called the “ghetto palm” – that is so beyond awesome!

  5. I had one of those in my backyard when I moved into this house.
    I’ve had to kill about a thousand of the suckers since. They spread like wildfires, both through seed and root runners.
    And they’re not easy to kill. And when you break or cut them, they smell like rancid peanut butter. And they grow like crazy and have a short lifespan compared to Maple or other more desirable trees.
    A pestilent curse in my yard, for sure.

  6. okay random comment not related to post but . . .

    I was looking through your photo stream and noticed you have a lot of pictures from houston. I’ve lived here my whole life and were just curiouse(sp?) why you guys spend a “seemingly” large amount of time here. . .

    just curiouse(sp, i can never remember how to spell that word :/)

  7. I love Ailanthus! I admire its persistence, and I admire the ailanthus workshop, great work. This tree is such a great resource. I’m trying to use it in combination with porcelain to make sculptures.

  8. I would love to know how Ellie managed to kill her tree. I’ve got one growing within 5 feet of our house and it’s got suckers all over the back yard. It’s so tall that I can’t find a tree company to get rid of it. It’s too close to the house and they all want me to take out the deck first. This tree is truly terrible.

  9. So cool that someone has actually attempted to make good use of this pest. Hope they keep up the good work and inspire others to dream up other uses. Paper?

  10. I am not so sure I am comfortable with a use for this tree’s wood. It might encourage people to grow them on purpose. I have only heard of them as a pest.

  11. I was given a tip that has allowed me to slowly reclaim my property! take a few old copper pennies, before 1982, and hammer them right into the trunk of the tree. By next season the whole tree and as far as I can tell- the pesky roots too will have all gone to heaven. As annoying as it is, it’s still an innocent tree. It’s so cool to not use any poisons I can’t pronounce. Just old fashion copper!

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