Ghetto Palm

Ailanthus altissima, commonly known as tree of heaven is a deciduous tree originating from China known for its ability to thrive in inhospitable urban environments; it has acquired the derisive nicknames of ‘ghetto palm,’ ‘stink tree,’ and ‘tree of Hell.’ The tree grows rapidly and is capable of reaching heights of 49 ft in 25 years. However, the species is also short lived and rarely lives more than 50 years.

In has become an invasive species due to its ability both to colonize disturbed areas quickly, including areas of rubble in war-torn Afghanistan, and to suppress competition with allelopathic chemicals. It is considered a noxious weed in Australia, the United States, New Zealand and several countries in southern and eastern Europe. The tree also resprouts vigorously when cut, making its eradication difficult and time consuming.

In China, the tree of heaven has a long and rich history. It was mentioned in the oldest extant Chinese dictionary and listed in countless Chinese medical texts for its purported ability to cure ailments ranging from mental illness to baldness. The roots, leaves and bark are still used today in traditional Chinese medicine, primarily as an astringent. The tree is also cultivated as a host plant for the ailanthus silkmoth in silk production.

The tree was first brought from China to Europe in the 1740s and to the United States in 1784. It was one of the first trees brought west during a time when chinoiserie was dominating European arts, and was initially hailed as a beautiful garden specimen. However, enthusiasm quickly waned as gardeners became familiar with its suckering habits and its foul smelling odor. Despite this, it was used extensively as a street tree during much of the 19th century.

Betty Smith use the tree of heaven as the central metaphor of her 1943 novel, ‘A Tree Grows in Brooklyn,’ using it as an analogy for the ability to thrive in a difficult environment. At the time as well as now, ailanthus was common in neglected urban areas. She wrote: ‘There’s a tree that grows in Brooklyn. Some people call it the Tree of Heaven. No matter where its seed falls, it makes a tree which struggles to reach the sky. It grows in boarded up lots and out of neglected rubbish heaps. It grows up out of cellar gratings. It is the only tree that grows out of cement. It grows lushly…survives without sun, water, and seemingly earth. It would be considered beautiful except that there are too many of it.’

Until 2008, a 60-foot-tall member of the species was a prominent ‘centerpiece’ of the sculpture garden at the Noguchi Museum in Queens, NY. The tree had been spared by the sculptor Isamu Noguchi when in 1975 he bought the building which would become the museum and cleaned up its back lot. The tree was the only one he left in the yard, and the staff would eat lunch with Noguchi under it. ‘[I]n a sense, the sculpture garden was designed around the tree,’ said a former aide to Noguchi, Bonnie Rychlak, who later became the museum curator. However, by 2008, the old tree was found to be dying and in danger of crashing into the building, which was about to undergo a major renovation. The museum hired the Detroit Tree of Heaven Woodshop, an artists’ collective, to use the wood to create benches, sculptures and other amenities in and around the building. The tree’s rings were counted, revealing its age to be 75, and museum officials hoped it would regenerate from a sucker.

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