Synonym(s): Ailanthus glandulosa
Family: Simaroubaceae (Quassia-Wood Family)
Duration and Habit: Perennial Tree
Tree-of-heaven, also known as ailanthus, Chinese sumac, and stinking shumac, is a rapidly growing, deciduous tree in the mostly tropical quassia family (Simaroubaceae). Mature trees can reach 80 feet or more in height. Ailanthus has smooth stems with pale gray bark, and twigs which are light chestnut brown, especially in the dormant season. Its large compound leaves, 1-4 feet in length, are composed of 11-25 smaller leaflets and alternate along the stems. Each leaflet has one to several glandular teeth near the base. In late spring, clusters of small, yellow-green flowers appear near the tips of branches. Seeds are produced on female trees in late summer to early fall, in flat, twisted, papery structures called samaras, which may remain on the trees for long periods of time. The wood of ailanthus is soft, weak, coarse-grained, and creamy white to light brown in color. All parts of the tree, especially the flowers, have a strong, offensive odor, which some have likened to peanuts or cashews.
Ecological Threat: Tree-of-heaven is a prolific seed producer, grows rapidly, and can overrun native vegetation. Once established, it can quickly take over a site and form an impenetrable thicket. Ailanthus trees also produces toxins that prevent the establishment of other plant species. The root system is aggressive enough to cause damage to sewers and foundations.
Biology & Spread: Tree-of-heaven reproduces both sexually (seeds) and asexually (vegetative sprouts). Flowering occurs late in the spring (June in the middle Atlantic region of eastern U.S.). The species is dioecious, with male and female flowering on separate trees. Fruits are papery, somewhat twisted, winged structures called samaras that are tan to pink-colored. Samaras occur in large clusters from September to October of the same year, and may persist on the tree through the following winter. One study reports that an individual tree can produce as many as 325,000 seeds per year. Established trees also produce numerous suckers from the roots and resprout vigorously from cut stumps and root fragments.
History: Tree-of-heaven was first introduced to America by a gardener in Philadelphia, PA, in 1784, and by 1840 was commonly available from nurseries. The species was also brought into California mainly by the Chinese who came to California during the goldrush in the mid-1800s. Today it is frequently found in abandoned mining sites there. The history of ailanthus in China is as old as the written language of the country.
U.S. Habitat: Tree-of-heaven is a common tree in disturbed urban areas, where it sprouts up just about anywhere, including alleys, sidewalks, parking lots, and streets. Away from cities, it is commonly seen in fields, and along roadsides, fencerows, woodland edges and forest openings. Nationally, ailanthus has become an agricultural pest and may occur as seedlings that pop up by the hundreds in recently planted fields, or as persistent thickets in rocky, untillable areas. Rapid growing, forming thickets and dense stands. Both shade and flood intolerant and allelopathic. Colonizes by root sprouts and spreads by prolific wind- and water-dispersed seeds. Viable seed can be produced by 2- and 3-year-old plants.
U.S. Nativity: Introduced to U.S.
Native Origin: China (Alfred Rehder, Manual of Cultivated Trees and Shrubs: Hardy in North America, The MacMillan Co., New York (1967), Bailey, L.H. and E.Z. Bailey, Hortus Third: A Concise Dictionary of Plants Cultivated in the United States and Canada, MacMillan Publishing Co., Inc., New York , (1977).); NatureServe Explorer
U.S. Present: AL, AR, AZ, CA, CO, CT, DE, FL, GA, IA, ID, IL, IN, KS, KY, LA, MA, MD, ME, MI, MO, MS, NC, NE, NJ, NM, NV, NY, OH, OK, OR, PA, RI, SC, TN, TX, UT, VA, WA, WI, WV
List All Observations of Ailanthus altissima reported by Citizen Scientists
Correct identification of ailanthus is essential. Several native shrubs, like sumacs, and trees, like ash, black walnut and pecan, can be confused with ailanthus. Staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina), native to the eastern U.S., is distinguished from ailanthus by its fuzzy, reddish-brown branches and leaf stems, erect, red, fuzzy fruits, and leaflets with toothed margins.
The most effective method of ailanthus control seems to be through the use of herbicides, which may be applied as a foliar (to the leaves), basal bark, cut stump, or hack and squirt treatment. Keep in mind that it is relatively easy to kill the above ground portion of ailanthus trees, you need to kill or seriously damage the root system to prevent or limit stump sprouting and root suckering. Always be extremely careful with herbicide applications in the vicinity of valuable ornamental shrubs and trees. A potential biological control for ailanthus may lie in several fungal pathogens, (Verticillium dahliae and Fusarium oxysporum) that have been isolated from dead and dying ailanthus trees in New York and in southern and western Virginia.USE PESTICIDES WISELY: ALWAYS READ THE ENTIRE PESTICIDE LABEL CAREFULLY, FOLLOW ALL MIXING AND APPLICATION INSTRUCTIONS AND WEAR ALL RECOMMENDED PERSONAL PROTECTIVE GEAR AND CLOTHING. CONTACT YOUR STATE DEPARTMENT OF AGRICULTURE FOR ANY ADDITIONAL PESTICIDE USE REQUIREMENTS, RESTRICTIONS OR RECOMMENDATIONS. MENTION OF PESTICIDE PRODUCTS ON THIS WEB SITE DOES NOT CONSTITUTE ENDORSEMENT OF ANY MATERIAL.
Bory, G. and D. Clair-Maczulajtys. 1980. Production, dissemination and polymorphism of seeds in Ailanthus altissima. Revue Generale de Botanique 88(1049/1051): 297-311 [in French].
Elias, T. 1980. The Complete Trees of North America: Field Guide and Natural History. Book Division, Times Mirror Magazines, Inc. New York.
Gleason, H.A., and A. Cronquist. 1991. Manual of Vascular Plants of Northeastern United States and Adjacent Canada. New York Botanical Garden. Bronx, New York.
Hu, S.Y. 1979. Ailanthus. Arnoldia 39(2): 29-50.
Mergen, F. 1959. A toxic principle in the leaves of Ailanthus. Bot. Gazette 121: 32-36.
Pannill, Philip. 1995. Tree-of-Heaven Control. Maryland Department of Natural Resources Forest Service Stewardship Bulletin. 8 pp.
Randall, J.M. and J. Marinelli. 1996. Invasive Plants: Weeds of the Global Garden. Brooklyn Botanic Garden, Handbook #149. 111 pp.
Stipes, J. And M. Daughtery. 1998. Personal communication.
Tennessee Exotic Pest Plant Council. Tree of Heaven. Tennessee Exotic Plant Management Manual. 1996
The Nature Conservancy, California Regional Office. November 1988. Ailanthus altissima Element Stewardship Abstract Report (prepared by Marc Hoshovsky). Arlington, Virginia.
Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation and Virginia Native Plant Society. 1996. Invasive Alien Plant Species of Virginia: Tree-of-Heaven (Ailanthus altissima (Miller) Swingle).
APWG WeedUS Database
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