Least Favorite Plant: Tree of Heaven

Detroit Tree of Heaven Woodshop’s controversial tree of heaven farm. Photos from the Detroit Tree of Heaven Woodshop.

Riding on the Amtrak San Joaquin train two weeks ago I discovered a new metric: the economic health of a city can be judged by the size of its trees of heaven (aka Ailanthus altissima). The higher the Ailanthus altissima, the more likely a city is to economically distressed.

Tree of heaven is a super weed much reviled by gardeners and landscapers for its unstoppable ability to grow in nearly every climate in the most inhospitable conditions. In a move that will raise a lot of horticultural hackles, the Detroit Tree of Heaven Woodshop has gone beyond the “if you’ve got lemons make lemonade” phase of their project and has deliberately planted a Ailanthus altissima farm. From their press release:

“Detroit Tree of Heaven Woodshop has established its first Tree of Heaven Farm on a vacant Detroit city lot for future harvest. We planted seedlings in beds of car tires. The tires protect the young trees while they are growing but also determine their lifetime to a size when the trunks are suitable for processing. We assume this period of growth to be approx. 40 years. Within this timespan we will maintain the plantation and keep the lot free of any kind of real estate speculation or building activity. The plantation has been realized with the support of the SMART Museum of Art, University of Chicago and a documentation is on display in the current Heartland exhibition.”

The Detroit Tree of Heaven Woodshop has turned sculptures and made furniture out of tree of heaven for a few years now. They’ve also come up with a stinky tree of heaven sauna:

“We have another small installation in the SMART Museums Heartland exhibition: A humidifier is installed in the museum lobby. The water tank of the device contains some pieces of Tree of Heaven wood (coll. Ghetto Palm). This is how the active substances get extracted in traditional Chinese medicine to cure a wide range of ailments from digestion problems, mental conditions, balding, to asthma and even cancer. In these tough economical times, a constant flow of steam will benefit all visitors with the spirit of this true Detroit resource.”

Invasion biology becomes art. If you can’t beat em’ you might as well find a use for em’.

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  1. I just finished reading “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” by Betty Smith, wherein the author reaches the same conclusion as you do. I think you’d like reading the first chapter or so of the book, even if you didn’t read the rest.

  2. i’ll have to disagree with this tactic for what i call the ‘tree of hell’, aka ‘evil weed tree’. these trees are bad for the soil, birds don’t nest in them, the branches are extremely fragile, and the wood is very soft. also, the leaves can be irritable to the skin, and handling it without gloves makes your hands smell like cat pee. also, they dont work as firewood either due to the stank (beyond ‘stink’) of the burning smell. i have two 50′ ailanthus in my back yard and the pods on the male drop over 300,000 pods all over the yard, and in the front yard where I have a female tree, the pollen is so thick that my yard is yellow in early summer and my gutters that empty into my rain barrels fill up with the pollen and the water that drains into them also has that lovely cat pee smell.

    I would also like to state that it does NOT speak of the city’s economic health as a whole. Detroit has bigger problems than these trees. It has more to do with the neighborhoods, as

    Also I think 40 years is gross overestimation considering these grow 3-5 feet per year. And getting rid of them is possible, it just takes a LOT of persistence and effort. Encouraging the growth of an invasive species is ridiculous – it’s like saying ‘oK well Americans aren’t doing enough to take care of their environment so let’s go the Idiocracy route and put gatorade directly onto the plants’.

    I have my two trees in the back scheduled to come out next week. In their place? Beneficial trees like apple, pear, and filbert. Planting forests of ailanthus is asinine -I bet Detroit hasnt even conceptualized using those spaces for gardens that will actually FEED the struggling population.

    (Can you tell how frustrated this ‘tree’ gets me?)

  3. Kudzu might make more sense. After all, the foliage is good fodder, the below-ground portions yield edible (and fermentable…) starch, and they fix nitrogen, leaving richer soil than they find.

    Tree of Heaven only produce herbicide, difficult timber, and (if you have the right sort of moth) silk.

  4. I have to come down on the side of “Lets grow sumpin’ GOOD! Maybe there could be a Paulwania or Emperess trees farm if there is just a simple desire for just big ol’fast growing trees.Theres also possibly another answer. The sponsor of the Detroit Tree of Heaven Woodshop could be enlightened as to how the new age farmers could grow something thats BETTER, STRONGER, and
    FEEDS People!

  5. i think the folks from the tree of heaven workshop know all the arguments against the tree of heaven and grow it in spite of that. much like those of of who live in detroit have heard all the arguments against living in detroit and we do it anyway, even thrive here.

    while i understand the arguments against the tree of heaven – and have battled my fair share – i still have a lot of respect for them. basic ecology tells us that if there is a niche to be filled someone will fill it. it just so happens that detroit is full of smoggy vacant lots which the tree of heaven is only to happy to fill.

    is the tree of heaven so evil as some would like to portray it? or is it merely exploiting a condition that we humans have created?

  6. @lilltehouseontheurbanprairie
    is the tree of heaven so evil as some would like to portray it? or is it merely exploiting a condition that we humans have created?

    Yes we humans make the wounds and tree of heaven just fills in the dead space. People don’t like them because they threaten our perceived dominion over nature. How dare they sprout-up without our permission. I too am an artist working with this tree. Many possibilities.

  7. Hi, You mentioned that you are an artist and have worked with this tree. I am a student artist in Chicago looking to make a large scale sculpture with some. Any ideas? Thank you.

  8. I was wondering if you could give me some advice as to how I could possibly get rid of these. I have two huge ones growing in my front yard and there are little babies everywhere. they are actually growing out of the roots of the two adult trees, and I am going to get them taken out, but the landscaper said that the babies could continue to grow for 10 year. Would tilling it get rid of them? Or is that two extreme? I tried to dig them out, and could never get down to the big root because my shovel would break, and spent about an hour on a square yard, and then put noxall on it, and there are more growing from that same spot. There are atleast 10 in every square foot of my yard! Someone help me!

  9. Anonymous–yow! In the past I’ve gotten rid of troublesome trees by cutting them to a stump, drilling holes and pouring in glysophate. Good luck!

  10. I Found the Best way to Kill it dig into the Ground two feet. the Root system is not that deep. I Learned that is the best way to Cortal that Tree. Really Also learn that its a Medican Tree to just like the Black walnut(Native here but thats besides the Point) We Can use those trees the same way Look it up. Plus, we ues this Tree then it maybe easyer to cotorn.

  11. Had a really big one. About 70’and branchless for the first 15′. Wish I’d known about you before I sold the property and the next owner took it down. Almost ordered a vanity at Home Depot that was made of Ailanthus. It looked good.

  12. Wow, what a concept. I’ve been scouring the web trying to find some beneficial use for this tree that grows so tall, so quickly (Wikipedia calls it the fastest in North America), and is harder to kill than to make grow (how many plants can we say that about?)!!

    Although I recognize it’s herbicidal effects on other competitor species, I can’t help but think that it could be used as a successful colonizer plant in areas with no vegetation. It would thrive with zero maintenance, providing shade to nearby buildings. It might serve as a pollution filter, cleaning contaminated soil and producing oxygen. I wonder if the development of its roots effectively tills the soil as well, making way for other plants to follow in its wake. Makes me wonder what other colonizers might me resistant to the tree of heaven’s allelopathic effects, and how those others might be planted in relation to ailanthus with an eye toward sustainability. Kudos for at least encouraging people to take a look at this benighted member of the plant world.

  13. I know 2 people in S. Indiana who are allergic to the fumes from Ailanthus (from the sap evaporating from the trunk and leaves). Although it isn’t stated in any of the “official literature,” I have heard that some people have allergic reactions to their brain, or eyes, or lungs, or heart.

    I have been eradicating Ailanthus for several years and the vast majority of my neighbors really appreciate the effectiveness of the chemicals and application technique I use – 10% Garlon + 90% deisel fuel or Premier Blue carrier, sprayed 1 1/2 tree diameter up the bottom of the trunk. Garlon mixed 10% with Deisel Fuel is about $10/gallon.

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