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Tree of Heaven

Tree of Heaven is commonly found in disturbed, urban areas. Photo Credit: Butler University Friesner Herbarium Blog.

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Common Name: Tree of Heaven
Scientific Name: Ailanthus altissima
Origin: China

Description

Tree of heaven is a deciduous tree that can grow up to 100 feet tall. Leaves are pinnately compound, 1 – 4 feet long, and have 10 to 40 leaflets. Leaflets (individual leaves) are 3 – 5 inches long and 1 – 2 inches wide, each with characteristic glandular “teeth” or bumps located at the base. Tree of heaven has a pungent odor some liken to burnt peanut butter, noticeable when leaves or twigs are broken. Flowers are small, yellow-green and appear in clusters in late spring or early summer, which give way to clusters of seeds in late summer. The bark of the tree resembles cantaloupe skin and large, distinct leaf scars are present. Tree of heaven is dioecious, meaning trees are either male or female.

Habitat

Tree of heaven thrives in disturbed habitats and can tolerate acidic soils and air pollution, but is highly intolerant of shade. Infestations are most commonly found in disturbed urban landscapes, including beneath powerlines and along right of ways, as well as in riparian zones, open areas, forest edges, and forest openings.

Threat

This species grows and spreads rapidly, posing a threat to native plant communities and tree species. Tree of heaven produces allelopathic chemicals that leach into the soil and prevent the establishment of other plants while its robust root system damages pavement and infrastructure. It is the preferred host of the highly destructive invasive species, spotted lanternfly.

Management

Tree of heaven has a robust root system and root fragments that can resprout, making management more challenging. Manual removal of seedlings and young trees may be effective as long as the entire root is removed. Mechanical treatments, such as mowing, result in increased growth and tree density. Herbicide applications provide the most consistent and effective control. Cut-stump treatments may be effective, along with girdling or cut-notch, however tree of heaven often responds by root suckering when cut or otherwise damaged. The most effective method of treatment appears to be basal bark herbicide applications. Any successful management strategy will require a multi-year effort.

As a dioecious tree, successful spread prevention and containment may be achieved by selectively removing female trees.

Regional Distribution

Locally Common

WNY PRISM Priority

Tier 3 – Containment

Pathways

Tree of Heaven was introduced to the east coast of the United States in 1784 as an ornamental tree. It was later introduced on the west coast in the 1850’s for medicinal uses. These trees are now found throughout the US. The single seeded samaras are wind dispersed and the tree produces aggressive root suckers.

Report Infestations

Tree of heaven is the preferred host of the spotted lanternfly, a costly agricultural pest that was recently introduced to New York State. Help us stop the spread of the spotted lanternfly by reporting tree of heaven infestations using iMapInvasives.

Additional Resources:

Invasive Plants in Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources
Tree of Heaven: PennState Extension