Tony the Tour Guy's Blog

A not very regular series of posts on New York City history, historic preservation, genealogy and related themes.

Saturday, July 16, 2005

Ailanthus: The Tree that Grows in Brooklyn

"Some people called it the Tree of Heaven. No matter where its seed fell,it made a tree which struggled to reach the sky. It grew in boarded-up lots and neglected rubbish heaps, and it was the only tree that grew out of cement. It grew lushly, but only in the tenement districts."

- Betty Smith, A TREE GROWS IN BROOKLYN, 1943.

Everyone has seen the Ailanthus. It grows everywhere. I saw one giant specimen coming out of a window on the third floor of an abandoned building in East New York. Easily distinguished by its long, pointed leaves, Ailanthus Altissima, as the botanists call it, was originally brought to New York from central China in the last century as a street tree. Able to withstand droughts and other harsh conditions in its native land, the Ailanthus was well-equipped for life in the big city. Although its admirers dubbed it The Tree of Heaven the strong odor given off by its flowers gained it the nick-name of Stink Weed.

And like a weed it spread. A single Ailanthus sapling can grow 12 feet per year, and a mature tree may produce 325,000 seeds annually. What's more, the Stink Weed is notoriously difficult to destroy. If you cut one down, new shoots will grow from the stump. City officials banned planting of more trees of this species, but Ailanthus has managed to prosper without any human help. One could liken it to the cockroach in terms of its innate ability to thrive in the worst of environments. Indeed, as Smith remarked, it seems to like urban blight.

In recent years however, Nature has been able to accomplish what people have not. A fungus which attacks Ailanthus has arrived in our area, one which is capable of killing its victims. Although it is too early to tell how serious a threat this poses, it seems safe to say that Ailanthus is here to stay, whether we want it or not.

Source: Margaret Mittelbach and Michael Crewdson, WILD NEW YORK, NY, Crown Publishers, 1997.

Copyright 1999 by Historic New York Tours. All rights reserved.


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