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Tree of Heaven: How to Identify and Remove It

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How to Identify and Remove Invasive Tree of Heaven

Native to China and Taiwan, the Tree of Heaven was introduced to the United States in 1748. Over the centuries it has spread vigorously. In her classic 1943 novel, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Betty Smith describes how it grows almost wherever its seeds are planted, in the poorest soils, with very little water and even cracks in concrete.

However, it is not just its rapid growth and spread that has made the refuge tree one of the most feared invasive species. It also has a bad history of allelopathy, which prevents other plants from growing nearby.

The tree produces a lot of pollen, which can cause allergies, and its leaves, branches, seeds, and bark can irritate the skin. If that's not enough, the tree of heaven is also the primary host for the spotted lanternfly, a highly destructive pest from Asia that was discovered in the northeastern United States in 2014.

There are many good reasons to become familiar with this tree, to learn to distinguish it from its peers and to know how to get rid of it.

Botanical NameAilanthus altissima
Common NameTree of heaven
Plant TypeDeciduous tree
Mature Size60 to 75 ft. tall, 35 to 50 ft. wide
LightFull sun, partial sun, partial shade
SoilAny
Bloom TimeLate spring to early summer
Flower ColorYellowish to light green

Invasiveness of Tree of Heaven

The tree of heaven grows rapidly; growth of 3 to 15 feet in a year is not uncommon. Once established, it constantly develops shoots, not just at the base, but 50 feet or more from the original tree. Newly sprouted trees only take about two years to produce seeds on their own. A female tree produces up to 300,000 seeds a year.

What also makes the tree of heaven so invasive is that its leaves, roots, and bark release allelopathic chemicals that prevent other plants from growing. This, combined with rapid growth and spread and the tree's ability to survive drought and thrive in poor soils, leads to tree-of-heaven monocultures.

How to Identify Tree of Heaven

Identifying a tree during the dormant season is not always easy, but a mature heavenly tree has a very distinct, rough, cracked bark that resembles the rind of a cantaloupe.

The leaves are long with a central stem and leaflets on each side. Because they are so large, between one and four feet, they can easily be mistaken for multiple leaves, although it is actually a large leaf with 10 to 40 lance-shaped leaflets with smooth edges.

The foliage has two characteristics: the bottom of each leaflet has two collision-shaped glands. And the leaves have a foul odor similar to burnt peanut butter, wet gym socks, or cat urine.

The leaves are not the only thing that smells like the tree of heaven. The cob-shaped flowers of the male tree have a noxious skunk odor.

After flowering, the male flowers wilt while the female ones grow in samaras (winged seedpods, also known as helicopter seeds) that contain a single seed that matures in late summer or fall.

Native Areas

Of the 44 states in the United States where the tree of heaven is present, 30 states classify it as an invasive species. With its dense monocultures, it has conquered fields, meadows, and forests with trees. Because the tree is drought tolerant and grows in nutrient-poor soils, it easily smothers native vegetation.

While the tree in the sky does not tolerate shade, it invades a forest that has been disturbed or sits on the edge of the forest. From there, it spreads through suckers or samaras of female trees that are blown away by the wind.

How to Remove Tree of Heaven

Small seedlings can be pulled out of the ground manually, provided they are removed with all the roots. This is the easiest way after a rain, when the ground is wet. If you are not sure you can lift all the roots when pulling, use a shovel to remove them.

The process of pulling an adult tree out of paradise involves cutting the tree as close to the ground as possible. Brush off any sawdust that may be on the cutting surface and apply a systemic herbicide such as glyphosate, using a herbicide brush or applicator.

This application must be made within five minutes after the tree is cut, otherwise, the surface will have closed and the herbicide will not penetrate the tissue. In the following weeks and months, during the growing season, monitor the stump and eliminate new shoots, shoots, and seedlings, always with the same systemic herbicide treatment. It may take several months for the tree to stop showing signs of life. Be persistent and patient.

Tree of Heaven Lookalikes

The tree of paradise can be confused with some native trees, first of all, black walnut and sumac. Besides the stench of the tree-of-heaven leaves, there are a few other distinguishing features that can help you differentiate them.

Tree of Heaven vs. Sumac

The leaves of the staghorn and smooth sumac are as large as the leaves of the celestial tree, but they do not have a single leaflet at the end of the leaf. Sumac leaves have serrated edges or teeth, unlike the tree of heaven which has only a few toothed leaflets at the base of the leaflet, the rest of the margins are smooth.

The yellowish-green cob-shaped flowers of sumac transform into velvety, choppy drupes with vibrant red berries.

Tree of Heaven vs. Black Walnut

The leaflets of the black walnut trees are finely serrated, unlike the leaflets of the tree of heaven. Walnut leaves have indistinct or very small terminal leaflets.

In spring, the tree has male flowers in the form of long green catkins and greenish flowers that resemble female spines. In the fall, black walnuts drop their walnuts into green shells that blacken after falling from the tree.

Enjoy This Video Tutorial About Tree of Heaven (Ailanthus altissima)

Source: The Woodland Steward

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