Every June, for a week or so there is a noticeably unpleasant smell in the air in my neighbourhood. It originates in the small, greenish yellow male flowers of the Tree of Heaven (Ailanthus altissima). This attracts numerous insects which carry the pollen to female trees.
The leaves are compound and can reach a length of 60 cms. They have a very foul odour when crushed which leads to the plant being given many rude common names such as stink tree or ghetto palm.
When a tree has been damaged or cut down, the remaining roots will sprout prolifically. In China, the term “good for nothing Ailanthus stump-root” refers to a spoiled or irresponsible child who fails to live up to parental expectations.
The tree grows well in full sun but is also shade resistant. It easily tolerates disturbance and grows where no other tree will. It also survives well with drought, road salt and air pollution. They say that if all the people in New York City disappeared, the region would become a Tree of Heaven forest in a very short time.
So where does the name originate? Here’s my theory:
In whatever part of the universe that decisions are made about what plants will live in which environments, a call was put out to all tree species.
“We need some species to move into an impossibly grim slum in an impossibly grim town on earth. How about you guys? (no response from the pines). And over there? (the maples take a step back). Oaks! What about it? (a door slams).”
Finally, in desperation: “What about you Ailanthii? Everyone complains about your smell. Maybe no-one will notice there.”
The residents of the impossibly grim slum in the impossibly grim town were so delighted with their new tree, they called it the Tree of Heaven.