Plants are incredibly important to the planet, providing us with food, cleaning the air and giving us precious oxygen to breathe, however, like with people, some plants can be jerks. We all know about weeds and how they can spread and kill other vegetation, but it turns out there is a tree out there that is actually one of the worst offenders. It's called an Ailanthus but is better known as a Tree of Heaven, which is ironic because it is definitely not angelic.
The Tree of Heaven was first brought to America from China in the late 1700s. With no natural predator here in the U.S., it has spread and can now be found running rampant in 44 states. So what's the big deal? Well according to conservation scientist Charles van Rees, the Ailanthus weakens and kills the plants around it by releasing chemicals into the soil. He explained that this "makes them extremely disruptive to existing vegetation, which disrupts habitat structure for other plant and animal species, and disrupts the food web by changing available food plants."
If that weren't enough, the tree is a favorite breeding ground for the harmful and invasive spotted lanternfly. Worse still, because the tree can live just about anywhere, no matter if there is sun or not, it can ruin concrete constructions and wreak havoc on infrastructure. As if all that weren't bad enough, the tree also has an unpleasant odor to it.
So how do you know if you have one? The best way to tell is by the leaves. Van Rees describes them as long stalks "with a bunch of little leaf-looking things growing along it," placed on opposite sides. If you crush the leaves, it smells gross. The tree's twigs are fuzzy and reddish-brown. Ailanthus is in every state except Montana, Wyoming, South Dakota and North Dakota, and especially loves urban areas.
So what should you do if you find one in your yard? If it is young enough, you can just pull it out of the ground. If it is older, there is more of a process thanks to its strong, thick roots. Cutting it down is not going to work since its roots will live on, so it first has to be cut down and then herbicide must be dripped onto the cut stem so that the poison gets pulled down into the roots and eventually kills off the tree. This is the best way since if herbicide is just spread around it, other plants will die off as well.