Ailanthus is known as the “tree of heaven.” It’s an introduced species in North America and, like many such species, it outcompetes its rivals. The tree of heaven isn’t bad to look at—in fact its handsome appearance was one of the reasons it was brought to these shores. Heaven isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be, however. The tree is aggressive and resilient, and difficult to eradicate. Among the many unexpected “gifts” the former owners of our house left us was a back yard full of ailanthus trees. At first I thought they were pleasant but then I had to remove a small one. The smell almost knocked me off my feet. I then learned that the Chinese name for it translates to “foul smelling tree.” Whose version of heaven is this?
Over the weekend I spent some time lopping off trees of heaven. Mosquitoes, I found out, love its shade. It keeps the kinds of friends you might expect. Heaven is, after all, a construct. The word can refer to either the great dome of the sky in which the ancients believed deities dwelled, or the realm of blessedness to which the righteous go after death. In either case, it was assumed to be a pleasant place. Any trees there (and there are some according to the Good Book) would likely have a pleasing fragrance. The ironically named version we get down here didn’t get the memo, it seems. As best as I can determine, the name of the tree refers to its rapid growth, as if it’s grasping for the sky.
A problem with our own species is that we seem to think we know more about this world than we do. We introduce species from other parts of the planet without considering how they impact the local environment. In the case of a property with lazy former owners, it can translate to a real problem with heaven trees. We’re often taken in by the innocence of names. The first time I saw a tree of heaven, in a public park in New Jersey, I thought I should write a blog post about it. It took being invaded by heaven, however, to make it seem relevant. Heaven is a foreign nation, it seems. It should smell nice and be open to people of all nations and creeds. According to Revelation the trees up there bear fruit every month of the year. Presumably in heaven someone else has to take care of the yard work.