Tree of heaven . . . or someplace else

    I hope it doesn’t seem like cheating to include a tree on my list of worst offenders of the weedy variety. It may challenge the presumption of what qualifies as a weed, but it seems that Ailanthus, or Tree of Heaven, deserves a spot on the list of the most obnoxious plants that Philadelphians contend with.

    Editor’s note: With gardening, and weed season now in full swing Nicole has assembled a list of Ground Level’s least wanted weeds in Northwest Philadelphia. The plant below is least wanted area weed number four.

     

    I hope it doesn’t seem like cheating to include a tree on my list of worst offenders of the weedy variety. It may challenge the presumption of what qualifies as a weed, but it seems that Ailanthus, or Tree of Heaven, deserves a spot on the list of the most obnoxious plants that Philadelphians contend with.

    Once you notice it, this tree is everywhere. The statuesque stands that have taken over the perimeter of woods and ball fields, that populate vacant lots and Septa embankments are somewhat attractive, their long leaflets tropically swaying in the breeze. But this tree isn’t known as the Ghetto Palm for nothing. It thrives in the worst possible conditions; a decent sized tree can be seen growing through a crack in asphalt or concrete, or bulging through the mesh of a chainlink fence.

    Afforded slightly better growing conditions, your garden for example, an unnoticed seedling can become a eight foot tree in the blink of an eye. The smell of the leaves brings to mind the cheap sesame noodles we ate in college- a combination of peanut butter, starch, and soy sauce that still turns my stomach. Giving crushed leaves the sniff test for this particular odor is the easiest way to identify Ailanthus.

    Like many plants since, Ailanthus caused quite a ripple of excitement when it was introduced in America. And also like so many plants, it came to Philadelphia first, in this case from China in the 18th century. The wealthy plant collector William Hamilton got his hands on the first imported specimen and planted it at his famous garden in West Philly, now the Woodlands Cemetery. By the early 1800s Ailanthus was being touted as the tree that would replace all others in the urban landscape. The popularity was short lived, as its less positive qualities were soon revealed- its messiness, weird smell, and its intention to take over the universe.

    Today the tree falls into the category of the ultimate weed- one that would be impossible to find for sale anyplace, but is still ubiquitous in the landscape.

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