Home > Gardening For Life > They Should Call It “Tree-of-Hell”

They Should Call It “Tree-of-Hell”

At this point in the fall, most things in my garden have closed up shop till next spring. Oh, there are some chrysanthemums blooming, and the Virginia sweetspire and chokeberry tree have put on their fiery fall colors, but there’s not much in the way of growth going on.
Except for the evil invasives. Sunday I went out to take a closer look at my beauty bush, which is currently sporting a heavy crop of bright purple berries, and discovered to my dismay about ten or more tree seedlings springing up all around it. Three of them had already grown quite thick little trunks and were threatening to turn into saplings. I pulled out the littler ones by the roots but those bigger ones – about an inch thick – required stronger measures. Mr. Z and I dug out the soil a little around their base, and then cut off the mini-saplings as low as we could. We then immediately painted the exposed cut surface with Round-Up.
Why go nuclear on these plants? Because we are dealing here with Ailanthus altissima, or “Tree-of-Heaven”. Tree-of-Heaven is one of the most aggressively invasive plants around. The National Park Service has this to say about it:

Tree-of-heaven is a prolific seed producer, grows rapidly, and can overrun native vegetation. Once established, it can quickly take over a site and form an impenetrable thicket. Ailanthus trees also produces toxins that prevent the establishment of other plant species. The root system is aggressive enough to cause damage to sewers and foundations…
…Tree-of-heaven reproduces both sexually (seeds) and asexually (vegetative sprouts)…One study reports that an individual tree can produce as many as 325,000 seeds per year. Established trees also produce numerous suckers from the roots and resprout vigorously from cut stumps and root fragments.

In my experience, even branch fragments left to lie too long in a flower bed will send down roots and sprout vigorous leaf growth. This plant is evil, evil, evil.
And unfortunately for me, my yard is flanked on either side by huge, well-established specimens. On the one side, my neighbor cherishes the tree as a producer of shade and a privacy screen. I can’t imagine a way to convince her it ought to be eradicated. The smaller of the two trees belongs to the neighbor who is rarely at home; they spend most of their time at their house at the Jersey shore. Mr. Z, however, thinks they won’t be too happy about the idea of taking out the Tree-of-Heaven because of the danger it might pose to their garage.
You see, you can’t just cut down a Tree-of-Heaven. That’s like pouring gasoline on a fire. It causes the roots to send up immense numbers of seedlings. You have to kill the tree in a manner that kills it all the way down to the roots. The National Park Service gives detailed directions on how to kill these trees. For the smaller tree in the mostly-absent neighbor’s yard, we’d probably have to kill it using the basal bark application method and then wait for it to die, then have it taken down. But I suppose there would be some danger that the dead tree might fall on the neighbor’s garage before it could be safely taken down.
Even if I could eliminate this smaller tree, there would still be the twice-as-big one in the other neighbor’s yard. In the part of our yard adjacent to this tree, tree seedlings are constantly sprouting up and it is a never-ending battle to keep the flower beds free of the trees. When Mr. Z mows the lawn in this area, he is always mowing little tree seedlings.
Even worse, our yard – and that of our neighbors – backs up against a nine-acre wooded preserve. (It was the scene of a Revolutionary War battle.) These small urban remnants of the once vast Eastern forest need to be protected and nurtured. We need to ensure that they flourish with native plants, but sadly, this wooded plot is overrun with invasives, garlic mustard among them.
I want to turn my yard into a garden of native plants; I want to help restore the woodland edge on my property and improve the health of my little part of the forest. But between the ridiculously large deer herd that subsists on that nine-acre plot, the garlic mustard, and the two giant Tree-of-Heaven trees on either side of me, I feel boxed in and defeated.
Even with all these things stacked against me, I still think I could make some serious headway if I had…more money. My yard is odd, but it has much potential. It’s on a slope, and is split up into several different areas on different levels. There’s sun and shade, woodland edge, an area that would be great for a mini-meadow…it could be a stunning place, and is a perfect site for putting in all kinds of natives. But what I need is guidance of some sort. What I would most like is to have someone work with me to develop a plan for the entire area, that would address all its quirks and develop a real multilayer landscape (groundcovers, perennials, shrubs, small trees – I already have some of the large trees in the forest edge.) A plan that I could work on over several years. I just don’t know where to get started. Haphazardly sticking in a dozen or so native perennials as I did this spring is not the approach I want to continue with.
If money were no object, I’d commission a real landscape plan from someone who knew something about working with natives, and I’d build a deer fence around at least some parts of my property, to discourage them, even though it’s not possible to fence in the entire yard.
Yellow Springs Farm Native Plant Nursery, in my area, does do landscape design. I’m going to call them and see how expensive it is. Maybe I can afford it for at least part of the yard, the woodland edge area.
When I think about habitat destruction, global warming, the growing number of species threatened with extinction, I often feel overwhelmed with despair, and powerless to make any real difference. My own little plot of land is all that I feel I have any real control over, and it is my obligation, I think, to make it over into as much of a native refuge as I can. And yet even that task seems daunting. Maybe the folks at Yellow Springs can help me out.
Have any of you attempted anything like this with your yards? How is it going? What’s worked well for you? Share your success stories, if you have some, or just commiserate if you don’t.

Categories: Gardening For Life
  1. Matthew Platte
    November 11, 2008 at 10:42 pm

    We have one of *those* trees that silently grew up, up and over the house while we were pre-occupied with getting the kids off to school. Now it’s a $2-3,000 job to let the professionals do it.

  2. RSG
    November 12, 2008 at 2:10 am

    We had a tree of heaven in our yard when I was growing up, but I don’t recall it ever trying to spread. My mother was partial to it, because scissortails nested in it. Maybe it isn’t as aggressive in west Texas.

  3. Who Cares
    November 12, 2008 at 4:29 am

    This reminds me of a weed my brother had in his garden.
    It was called hogweed. The end result of trying to remove it was that the garden was looking a bit like the moon with in the craters stems of the weed (in which he’d pour undiluted herbicides).

  4. Luna_the_cat
    November 12, 2008 at 7:15 am

    Yellow Springs Farm Native Plant Nursery, in my area
    …How long have you lived in that area, Zuska? I lived in Chester Springs for a year, over on Highview Drive.

  5. Luna_the_cat
    November 12, 2008 at 7:25 am

    Me cannot brain today.
    Clearview Drive, not Highview.

  6. November 12, 2008 at 8:52 am

    My ecology teacher showed me once that breaking one of the leaves makes a smell like rotten peanut butter. Those trees have completely taken over my hometown.

  7. S.
    November 12, 2008 at 10:50 am

    We are ripping out lots of invasive ivy and wisteria. Somewhat of a useless endeavor, since the source is an adjacent neighbor’s yard and it is not likly she’ll be moved to maintain her property.

  8. O3
    November 12, 2008 at 11:29 am

    And on top of all that, Tree of Heaven also smells (to me, at least) like rancid semen! We call it “the sperm tree” in my house. Ewwww. :/

  9. November 12, 2008 at 1:12 pm

    Oh yeah, Tree of Heaven STINKS to high heaven. Maybe that’s why they call it Tree of Heaven. Even just pulling out the seedlings releases the stink. Gah.
    Luna, I’ve been living in the Philly suburb of Glenside for the past three years, and before that lived in this same area from 1994-1998. So Yellow Springs isn’t exactly in my back yard but it’s close enough! Did we overlap in time? You mean we could have been hangin’ out and havin’ coffee together? Damn!

  10. Luna_the_cat
    November 12, 2008 at 2:11 pm

    Aw, drat.
    No, we didn’t overlap in time, I’m afraid — the year I lived there was 1987-88. I’m disappointed. Mind you, not as disappointed as if we *had* overlapped and I didn’t know you then….
    Maybe one of these days I’ll get back for a visit. I would love to hang out and have a coffee with you.

  11. Art
    November 12, 2008 at 4:54 pm

    I have been told quietly by a local authority that many invasive trees can be discreetly eliminated by hammering in copper nails at slightly below ground level so they can’t be seen. According to him the tree weakens and dies over a year or two.
    The thought is that the copper produces copper sulfate that poisons the tree slowly so it looks like the succumbed to any number of usual causes like: nutritional deficiency, disease or insect attack.
    A fortress needn’t always be taken by head on attack. Subterfuge and slow undermining all have a place.

  12. PeggyL
    November 12, 2008 at 5:28 pm

    Good luck, Zuska, and bless you for taking on the ailanthus! When I lived in North Carolina we got lots of info on native plant landscaping from the North Carolina Botanical Garden, and when I lived in Tallahassee there was a great native plant nursery that did a landscape plan for us that we worked on over several years, and it didn’t cost that much (the plan, that is). Hang in there!

  13. November 13, 2008 at 1:44 pm

    I lived near Sharpsburg, MD, for many years and our yard had a couple of very large Stinking Tree of Heavens (that’s what Mom called ’em). Much of the yard we allowed to become natural meadow. The areas around the alianthuses we kept close mowed. I regularly mowed the saplings with our lawn tractor. I swear I could watch the damn things grow. And it isn’t even good firewood!

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