Comments: Ailanthus is native to central China, where its history is as old as the written language of the country (Hu 1979). Little information is available on its ecology in China, although Hu (1979) reviews its cultural importance and value for wood products and medicine.
The species was apparently introduced into America by two different routes. The first route began with Pierre d'Incarville mistaking it for the lacquer tree in China and sending seeds to England around 1751 (Feret and Bryant 1974, Hu 1979). It was then introduced to America by a Philadelphia gardener in 1784 (Hu 1979). Because of its rapid growth and ability to grow in unfavorable conditions with little care, it became a common stock in eastern nurseries by 1840. The second route was through Chinese miners. During the days of the California gold rush, many Chinese miners brought ailanthus seeds with them as they settled in California, probably because of its medicinal and cultural importance to them.
Escaping from cultivation and quickly becoming established on both coasts, ailanthus has expanded its range considerably since its initial introductions. Specimens from the Harvard University Herbarium indicate that it "runs wild from Massachusetts...to Oregon ... and from Toronto, Canada ... to Argentina ..." (Hu 1979). In some localities ailanthus is so well established that it appears to be a part of the native flora (Little 1974).
In the eastern United States, the frequency of ailanthus occurrences increases as one nears the cities. In neglected urban areas, ailanthus grows "as trees close to buildings, as hedges, or as bushy aggregates along railroad tracks, highway embankments, walls at the ends of bridges and overpasses, or in cracks of sidewalks and along fences" (Hu 1979). Although it is usually found in disturbed areas, it occasionally spreads to undisturbed areas. Kowarik (1983) views human settlements as centers of its distribution and roads as migration routes.
In California ailanthus is widely naturalized in cismontane areas, especially around old dwellings and mining settlements (Munz and Keck 1973). It has become established in Pleasants Valley, Solano and Marin counties, Berkeley, Vacaville, Petaluma, San Andreas, Angel's Camp, Columbia, and in various places in the Sacramento Valley (Robbins et al. 1951).