Our daughter Olivia loves the television show “Cake Boss”, Buddy Valastro’s show about his business Carlo’s Bakery. Known for a variety of cookies and elaborate cakes, it’s his cannoli that has helped turn our daughter into a “foodie”. Located on Washington Street in Hoboken, NJ, I promised Olivia a visit to savor her sweet treat and drove down Observer Highway, in Hoboken, to get there. From the corner of my eye, perched a few stories in the air; I saw a most remarkable feat. A tree growing between the roof and the gutter, on a 45-degree angle, I quickly identified it as Tree of Heaven, Ailanthus altissima, also known as “ghetto palm”.
“Tree of Heaven defies its moniker as this invasive plant is more apt to make a property owner say a deity’s name in vain than praise its seemingly immortal roots” (www.confluence-denver.com). Perhaps one of the fastest growing trees in North America, capable of growing more than 6 feet a year during its adolescent years, this tree is obnoxious! Yet, in some obscure way, I find its ability to grow almost anywhere fascinating. The 1943 novel by Betty Smith, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, speaks metaphorically to this hardy tree. “A coming of age novel about a young girl growing up in a Brooklyn tenement who finds the toughness and persistence of Ailanthus, growing up from the sidewalk cracks, to be an aspirational metaphor for overcoming the adversities of her own life” (www.missouribotanicalgarden.org). Native to China and Taiwan where it is a host plant for the Ailanthus webworm, a moth involved in silk production, Ailanthus made its way to the United States in 1784 and was soon taking over landscapes. A durable, tenacious plant, Ailanthus seems to survive anywhere, even when it is not wanted. Asphalt, concrete and apparently rooftops and gutters cannot deter this plants proliferation.
Dark green, 18-24 inch long, compound pinnate leaves that turn yellow-green flowers in early summer apparently were enough to introduce this tree as an ornamental. Quickly escaping cultivation, “ghetto palm, “stink tree” or “tree of Hell”, all derisive nicknames Ailanthus has been given over the years, reaches heights of 40-60 feet easily. “The question is whether this term is offensive or racist? Is so, we need to find another term that is equally as evocative of its position in our cities” (www.venerabletrees.org).
Tolerant to a wide range of soils, including poor ones, Ailanthus loves full sun to part shade. Listed as an exotic, invasive species in many parts of our country, I certainly am not suggesting planting this tree anywhere, anytime soon! The wood of this tree is weak and tall trees can easily be taken out in severe storms. Abundant in many large cities today, the Latin name, altissima, means tallest! Ailanthus’s nickname Tree-of-Heaven is not because it is heavenly, rather it is taller than many other urban trees and some small buildings for that matter. The term “stink tree” is because the male flowers have a vile odor and its bad habits of root and stump sprouting. Finally, “Ghetto Palm” has its slur from surviving in older, run-down parts of a city.
There is a certain amount of admiration I have for this tree’s ability to survive almost anywhere. As a garden center owner/operator I marvel, sometimes, at how quickly a customer can kill a plant. Often it is simply from too much or too little water. Here’s a tree I found growing on a rooftop, wedged between hot tar on the roof and a gutter. Growing at a 45-degree angle, the tree said, “Look at me, I can grow anywhere” and with only the occasional help from Mother Nature’s watering can.