Tree of Heaven
The novel “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” by author Betty Smith was published in 1943. It is the story of an 11-year old girl, Francie Nolan, who lives in tenement housing in Brooklyn, NY. Francie has one tree in her yard, called Tree of Heaven.
“No matter where its seed fell, it made a struggle to reach the sky. It grew in boarded-up lots out of neglected rubbish heaps and it was the only tree that grew out of cement… The tree knew. It came there first… That was the kind of a tree it was. It liked poor people. That was the kind of tree in Francie’s yard. Its umbrellas curled over, around and under her third-floor fire escape. An eleven year old girl could imagine she was living in a tree. That’s what Francie imagined every Saturday afternoon in summer.”
Young Francie is a fictional character, but Tree of Heaven (‘Ailanthus altissima’) is quite real and is a “Tree that Grows in Medford”. Tree of Heaven is native to China, introduced in the U.S. in 1784, and has become naturalized across the country. Unfortunately, it has become problematic and invasive, especially in urban areas, sprouting from cracks in pavement, along building foundations, at edges of highways, parking lots and neglected spaces. In spite of its lofty name, Tree of Heaven has a very lowly reputation. Even if you could find it for sale, it’s best not to plant it.
So, why is Tree of Heaven a “Tree of the Week”? The answer is that the goal of this column is to help readers identify and become more knowledgeable about all trees in our midst, even those that are considered weedy or invasive. By recognizing and learning about trees, of all sorts, we not only experience the pleasure of trees more deeply, but also understand the challenges the urban environment presents to our trees. And maybe we will act on this knowledge and become greater stewards of our “urban forest”, working to preserve, protect and promote our trees and environment.
With acknowledgement of the problematic characteristics of Tree of Heaven, it has a certain beauty about it, too. Growing at a very fast rate of 3 to 5 feet or more per year, it can quickly reach 40 to 50 feet in height with a variable spread. Leaves are pinnate, which means leaflets are arranged on opposite sides of a long stem, giving a feathery or almost tropical effect. Dark green above and lighter green below, leaves sometimes have a yellow fall color, but also often fall off the tree without much of a show. The most showy feature of Tree of Heaven are the seeds, called samaras, that hang in large dense clusters. The samaras are papery, slightly twisted, with a central seed in each, starting out a bright green but changing to yellow-green then to a pinkish or orangey red. Even driving down the highway, the seed clusters are easily recognizable, sort of like big bouquets among the feathery leaves.
The trees in the photo are along the exit ramp from Route 93 down to the rotary at Salem St. More Trees of Heaven grow along Clippership Drive, by the tracks along the commuter rail in West Medford and at the edges of parking lots or building sites. With a bit of imagination, you may be able to picture yourself in a Tree of Heaven tree house on a summer Saturday afternoon.