Let’s just be real. The Tree of Heaven (Ailanthus Altissima) is a badass. It lives hard and dies young, usually around the age of fifty. It releases up to 325,000 seeds per year, which it doesn’t even fucking need because it can reproduce asexually. It eats toxins and doesn’t give a shit about heavy metals in soil. In fact, it can grow in soil with a ph level of 4.1 which is also about the ph of a Bloody Mary, so think about that.
Like any gutter-punk, Tree of Heaven smells and is nicknamed the Stinking Sumac. But I wouldn’t recommend calling that to its face. Then again, the Tree of Heaven probably didn’t like you or your friends to begin with and if you tried to grow next to it, it’d shoot ailanthone out of its roots so that you wouldn’t even think about germinating.
While most people go on and on about the mulberry tree and silkworms and blah, blah, blah, the Tree of Heaven is home to the Tree of Heaven Silkmoth, which unlike its wussy mulberry tree dwelling cousin, is undomesticated and produces silk that’s just as nice. Or nicer and definitely stronger. So basically, it’s responsible for the success of the Han Dynasty (206 BC–220 AD) and the unification of China. But doesn’t brag about it like a jackass.
You might be thinking, “oh, that Tree of Heaven is crazy. Just look at how aggressive it is!” But you’re wrong.
You’re crazy and the only thing likely to cure you is 8th Century Chinese remedy for mental illness with chopped Tree of Heaven’s roots, young boy’s urine, and some fermented soybeans. Drink up, buddy.
Or maybe you’re getting old, unlike the Tree of Heaven, and you wish you weren’t so bald. No problem. Crush up some Tree of Heaven leaves and put them on your head.
So how did Tree of Heaven get to the US? A multipronged attack. First, it employed trickery when in 1784 Philadelphian plant collector William Hamilton mistook the Tree of Heaven a Chinese Varnish Tree.
Oh, and by the way, Hamilton is the man most responsible for America’s obsession with water-wasting, boring-as-watching-the-pot-boil, bourgeoisie bullshit grass lawns. Thanks a lot. But I digress.
By the 1840s Tree of Heaven had taken over the East Coast, especially after nurseries started selling saplings advertising them as beautiful shade trees. What a bunch of suckers!
A second wave arrived with Chinese immigrants coming to America to work on the California railroads who stowed Tree of Heaven seeds to plant for medicinal purposes.
After that, it had a hold of both the coasts, just like the Democratic party. But obviously the Tree of Heaven is more of an individualist anarchist.
Oh, and by the way, the tree in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn? Tree of Heaven, obviously.
You can find the Tree of Heaven in parking lots and junk yards in Brooklyn and the Bronx that you’ve never heard of, and never will.