Tree of Heaven and Hell

The Awful Ailanthus

By: Kenneth M. McFarland

In late December 1852, Frederick Law Olmsted, who would later become the “father of American landscape architecture,” visited a tobacco plantation south of Petersburg, Virginia. Here he met the owner, “Mr. W,” and had the opportunity to observe various aspects of life among the plantation’s enslaved residents, the chief purpose of his travels below the Mason-Dixon Line. Being Olmsted, however, he snatched an opportunity to remark on the landscape, and in his 1856 book A Journey in the Seaboard Slave States, he noted that while making improvements to his house, Mr. W had removed some old oaks because, he said, they “interfered with the symmetry of the grounds.” In their stead, Mr. W had planted ailanthus trees “in parallel rows.”

Olmsted offered no comment or appraisal of ailanthus in his book, but he was later to favor use of the tree in certain situations, including installation in New York City’s Central Park, which he designed not long after. While it might be a stretch to say the Connecticut Yankee was on the “love” side of the ailanthus equation, his feelings were more like those of early ailanthus aficionados than of people who soon became its biting critics.

Of course, the eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries witnessed tremendous excitement engendered
 by new plant introductions and shared by plant hunters, nursery operators, and gardeners alike. Their endeavors brought dramatic change to the appearance of the European and American landscape in ways than can be celebrated as
 well as bemoaned—–sometimes both—–depending upon the tastes of the landscaper/gardener. 

Lagerstroemia indica, the ubiquitous crape myrtle, offers a fine example.

One early introduction, however, seems now to have passed almost totally into the “bemoaned” category. This is Ailanthus altissima, ironically named tree-of-heaven, though it later gained the less celestial handle of “stink tree” along with other pejorative monikers. Yet every dog has its day, and so did ailanthus, the epitome of what we today call a “weed tree.” 

Anyone with more than a passing awareness of ailanthus knows that it traveled to the West from a Chinese homeland where it was revered
 for its medicinal uses, as well as being 

the host tree for the ailanthus silk moth. Tree-of-heaven first appeared in Europe and Great Britain in the early-to-mid-eighteenth century. It was the period of the chinoiserie, a time when fashionable ladies and gentlemen were passionately embracing things Chinese. An ever-increasing number of merchant ships importing goods from Asia helped both to foster the fashion and to make sure buyers could continue to indulge their Chinese fantasies. From clothing to every facet of the decorative arts, the chinoiserie had an impact that lingers to this day. 

The gardening world, too, felt the e
impact of the fashion for le goût chinois.
 Evidence in the form of garden architecture survives in such dramatic examples as Sir William Chambers’ pagoda at Kew. But while pagodas did not pop up in every
 corner of Europe and America, live examples of Chinese landscape and garden elements also began appearing in Europe and America, remaining with us in ever growing numbers. One example, of course, is the above-mentioned crape myrtle, joined by such enduringly popular Asian imports as camellia and azalea. How could the American South be the South without them? 

And to offer shade and verticality to those chinoiserie-flavored gardens came Ailanthus altissima, the tree-of-heaven. 

Credit—or blame—–for introducing ailanthus to the West goes to the widely travelled Jesuit priest Pierre d’Incarville, who began a mission in China in 1740. He soon gained access to Chinese gardens and began sending a variety of seeds to his native France, a practice d’Incarville continued until his death. Included among those seeds finding their way to Bernard de Jussieu at Le Jardin de Plantes were those of tree-of-heaven. De Jussieu, in turn, forwarded seeds to English contacts, including
 Philip Miller and Peter Collinson. From England, ailanthus traveled to America,
 in 1774 passing first into the hands of Philadelphia gardener William Hamilton. 

An account of Hamilton, one of Thomas Jefferson’s best gardening friends, and his home “The Woodlands,”
 is offered in the book Inspiration from the Woodlands: Jefferson’s Enduring Ties to Philadelphia’s Botanical Riches by Peggy Cornett. Cornett reminds us that Hamilton can also be credited with introducing ginkgo, Lombardy poplar, and Norway maple to America. The Lombardy poplar quickly gained popularity, but ailanthus required more time to be broadly disseminated. While the former was grown by Jefferson, moreover, and appears in a well-known c. 1825 painting of Monticello, our third president apparently never planted tree-of-heaven. 

Nurseryman William Robert Prince suggested that ailanthus’s burgeoning popularity in the early nineteenth century might relate to a simple name change. His grandfather, William Prince, had reportedly sent tree-of-heaven to Bartram’s Garden, the oldest surviving botanical garden in America, under the name “Tanners’ Sumach.” The younger Prince suggested that the simple trick of changing the name to “Chinese Ailanthus” was a rebranding miracle, leading prices to rise 300 percent and making it difficult to produce enough stock to meet growing demand. 

Other than a name that Prince said cast “a potent charm” on the tree, ailanthus did have other appealing qualities. Perhaps above all
 it made for a handsome mature tree that got that way quickly: Tree-of-heaven can reach 50 feet in a mere 25 years. Its resistance to disease and pollution were also a plus. It is thus easy to see how such a tree might not only win the hearts of some gardeners, but also catch on with urban planners and developers. The Prince Nursery was located in Flushing, while an example of a ready market for their ailanthus supplies was to be found in nearby “bursting at the seams” New York City. 

In great numbers, young tree-of-heaven plants thus travelled across the East River and into Manhattan, appearing as street trees or adorning the lots of recently built homes as the city made its relentless march north. City authorities also used ailanthus for street planting in Brooklyn and Boston, while in the South, Baltimore planners also embraced the quick-growing tree. 

But while tree-of-heaven had its obvious supporters, there were others who soon began to bring out the negative side of the love-hate story. Famed New York garden authority A. J. Downing, who led the way for the anti crowd, didn’t beat around the bush with his 1852 observations on ailanthus in his widely-read magazine The Horticulturist

“We look upon it as an usurper, which has come over to this land of liberty, under the garb of utility to make foul the air, with its pestilent breath, and devour the soil with its intermeddling roots….”

Later in the decade, The New York Times ran several letters echoing Downing’s points. One of them, published under the headline “The Poisonous Ailanthus” on June 30, 1859, referenced Downing’s condemnation, which had joined that of “other horticulturists and landscape gardeners (who) unanimously condemn … the ailanthus, a rank overgrown weed at best….” 

The letter mentioned studies by a French medical professor who concluded that ailanthus
 bark “contains a volatile oil, which is so deleterious in its effects” as to cause “vertigo and vomiting” among those “in contact with the vapors.” The letter writer also cited evidence that the tree could have a “sickening effect on delicate persons, particularly children, often forcing them to gag.”

Four days later, a similar letter from a writer who identified himself as “SUFFERER” appeared in the Times. While “SUFFERER” made no note of gagging, he showed no quarter to tree-of-heaven: 

The Awful Ailanthus 

In your paper of to-day, you declare war against the Ailanthus. Thousands and tens of thousands of New-York citizens will thank you for it. Do keep it up till the internal, stinking, poisonous thing is extirpated, root and branch. New-York is wicked. It has sins innumerable to answer or atone for, but if there are such things as earthly penalties for such sins New-York is paying them slowly and surely by the odorous vileness of the foul Ailanthus. But what makes it worse, it falleth on the just and unjust. I don’t know as that can be literally true of this burgh. Some think the former class extinct. If not, a few more years of the Ailanthus will do the job for both classes. How does that “overgrown weed” come to be planted from year to year, still in the very face of its vileness and unhealthiness. Mainly, doubtless, as many of our “improvements” (?) are made—by “builders,” anxious to have a fast shade to aid in selling the “model houses” with which up town blocks are fast being filled—houses whose infirmities will scarcely allow them to tarry with us for one generation. And how about the Central Park? Is that to be adorned by the deadly Ailanthus? Better send for the Upas at once, and between the two we should have a delicious time….

(The milky sap of the Upas, another tropical Asian tree, is said to be lethal and was once used on the tips of poison arrows.)

Plant lists and other period documents make it appear that some Southerners may have heeded Downing’s advice as ailanthus sales in America soon dwindled. Still we know that, as noted, it was used in Baltimore, and of course we have the 1852 Olmsted reference cited at the start of this article. “Mr. W” was not the only Southside Virginian to embrace it for lining a plantation drive. One of the finest antebellum homes of that region is Halifax County’s Berry Hill, a remarkable dwelling that epitomizes every popular notion of the Greek Revival style. In the 1923 essay collection Historic Gardens of Virginia, Elizabeth Bruce Crane observed, “Leading to the grounds was an Ailanthus avenue one-half mile long. This Ailanthus or Tree of Heaven as it was then called, was an imported tree, not indigenous to the United States, and was considered very rare.” 

Another Southern reference to ailanthus shows up in plantation owner and enslaver Henry Watson’s Greensboro, Alabama landscape plan of 1857, on a list that has both native and non-native trees. While a wide variety of Asian imports shows up in other Southern nursery offerings and private garden lists, there are few mentions of tree-of-heaven otherwise. Ailanthus does appear on the original plant list for Washington, D. C.’s Dumbarton Oaks, but Gail Griffin, the former director of gardens and grounds there, is uncertain whether it had actually been planted, or if the list simply noted its presence on the site. 

Despite its ornamental use at a handful of Virginia plantations, by the close of the nineteenth century ailanthus was gaining a reputation more in keeping with A. J. Downing’s negative view than with the William Prince “potent charm” perspective. The out-of-control weed tree we know today was familiar to famed Richmond novelist Ellen Glasgow, who clearly saw it as a symbol for decline in her 1900 novel The Voice of the People, where she offers this grim description of a farmstead in Tidewater Virginia: “The yard was unkempt and ugly, run wild with straggling ailanthus shoots and littered with chips from the wood-pile.” In The Battle-Ground, from 1902, Glasgow travels back in fictional time to the Civil War, but tree-of-heaven gets no respect there, either. One of Glasgow’s rustic characters offers his visitors dinner if they will chop wood, “taking a wad of tobacco from his mouth” as he does, “and aiming it deliberately at one of the ailanthus shoots.” 

So much for arboreal celestiality. 

Today Ailanthus altissima serves chiefly as a target for “thou-shalt-not” and “how-to-rid-yourself-of” landscape articles. Yet they can be handsome trees, reaching 80 feet if allowed to mature, and their stubborn determination to propagate and thrive deserves at least a modicum of admiration. Most readers will know that this characteristic was celebrated in Betty Smith’s 1943 novel A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, where instead of being a target for tobacco wads, ailanthus is celebrated for survival traits that serve as metaphor for similar characteristics in a family. 

Might Ellen Glasgow in her waning months have read Smith’s book and had an ailanthus epiphany? Probably not. 


Ken McFarland. who reports for Pie & Chai from small town Vermont, was born in Martinsville, VA and grew up in Durham, NC. This essay originally appeared in the Winter-Spring 2017 issue of Magnolia, published by the Southern Garden History Society.