Treasures of the Valley » Mike lawler

Ailanthus – Tree of Heaven or Tree From Hell?

Mike Lawler is the former  president of the Historical Society of the Crescenta Valley and loves local history. Reach him at
Mike Lawler is the former
president of the Historical Society
of the Crescenta Valley and loves local history. Reach him at

The Ailanthus tree is becoming one of the most common growths found in La Crescenta. It comes up in vacant lots, along sidewalks and roadways, and is symbiotic with development as it prefers disturbed soil to sprout. Once you learn to recognize it, you begin to realize how prevalent it actually is. It’s a tall slender grey barked tree. The leaves are most distinctive, growing on long red-brown stems, each holding 10 or 20 leaves. It’s deciduous, and the leaves turn yellow before falling. The plant has a strong sharp nutty odor when cut or when you rub your fingers on the leaves. It propagates both by seeds and underground runners, and if left unchecked will quickly form dense thickets. It may be the fastest growing tree in North America, up to six feet a year, and can reach 80 feet.

Ailanthus Altissima is known by many nicknames. Most common is “Tree of Heaven” or “Chinese Sumac,” but is also known as “Stinking Sumac,” “Tree From Hell,” and “Ghetto Palm” (for its tendency to grow in abandoned urban areas). The 1943 novel turned movie turned musical “A Tree Grows In Brooklyn” refers to the Ailanthus tree, common in New York’s poorer neighborhoods. The tree serves as a metaphor for the immigrant class, as it grows up through cement sidewalks, rubbish heaps and sewer grates. It thrives wherever its seeds land. Like New York’s immigrant class, it’s tough, needs no cultivation, and although it’s beautiful, there are far too many of them.

Ailanthus has a long history of interaction with man. It’s native to China, where it is an important symbol in their mythology and literature.

Ailanthus was a common ornamental tree in the Orient, and was used to feed silkworms for silk production. It’s a vital component in Chinese medicine, treating a wide variety of ailments including epilepsy, mental illness and baldness. It was imported to Europe in the 1740s and then to America in 1784 where it was prized as a garden tree. It was a common street tree all across the U.S. up into the early part of this century. A century after it was introduced on the east coast, it was brought to California by Chinese immigrants. Because of its favor for disturbed soil, it follows the hand of man closely, often growing in new developments, new roadways and industrial areas. It gained a foothold in Europe after WWI and WWII when it grew out of bomb craters and the rubble of destroyed cities. It’s currently flourishing in war torn Afghanistan.

Although it was first prized by gardeners, it soon became a pest, propagating quickly and taking over entire forests. It forces out native species by producing a chemical that discourages growth by other plants. Besides its worldwide distribution, it is firmly established in the U.S. and is now classified as an invasive species in 30 states, including California. It’s very hard to kill. Simply cutting it off at the base actually encourages runners to spread and sprout. Herbicide treatments can be effective, but need constant rechecking of treated areas as the tree has a remarkable ability to re-grow from its buried roots and runners.

Here in La Crescenta it is common to see it growing next to the flood control channels and debris basins. If you’d like to see examples of Ailanthus, there are a couple right on Foothill. A really pretty stand of mature trees is growing behind the small house/business in the lot to the west of Everest Burgers. On the corner of Foothill and Sunset is a great example of how quickly the tree can dominate an area. A developer tore a house down a few years ago, and Ailanthus started growing immediately in the vacant lot. The property owner had them cut down but they grew right back. If you peek over the construction fence there, you’ll see probably a hundred two-to-three foot trees growing there. Ailanthus has taken root in my yard, my mom’s yard, my daughter’s and my father-in-law’s yard. Chances are Alanthus will come to live with you as well.

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