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Tree-of-heaven (Ailanthus altissima), also known ailanthus, Chinese sumac, and stinking shumac, is a deciduous tree in the mostly tropical Simaroubaceae family. Mature trees can reach 80 feet in height. Ailanthus has smooth stems with pale gray bark and twigs which are light chestnut brown, especially in the dormant season. Its large compound leaves are 1-4 feet in length, alternate, and composed of 10-41 smaller leaflets. Each leaflet has one or more glandular teeth along the lower margin. The leaf margins are otherwise entire or lacking teeth. Ailanthus is a dioecious (“two houses”) plant meaning that male and female flowers occur on separate plants. Flowers occur in large terminal clusters and are small and pale yellow to greenish. Flat, twisted, winged fruits each containing a single central seed are produced on female trees in late summer to early fall and may remain on the trees for long periods of time. The wood of ailanthus is soft, weak, coarse-grained, and creamy white to light brown in color. All parts of the tree, especially the leaves and flowers, have a nutty or burned nut odor.
Tree-of-heaven is a fast-growing tree and a prolific seeder that can take over sites, replacing native plants and forming dense thickets. Ailanthus also produces chemicals that prevent the establishment of other plant species nearby. Its root system may be extensive and has been known to cause damage to sewers and foundations.
Tree-of-heaven is a common tree in disturbed urban areas, where it sprouts up just about anywhere, including alleys, sidewalks, parking lots, and streets. For example, the book “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn,” by Betty Smith, is based on the tree-of-heaven. Away from cities, ailanthus is commonly seen in fields, and along roadsides, fencerows, woodland edges and forest openings. It occurs as seedlings that pop up by the hundreds in recently planted fields and as persistent thickets in rocky, untillable areas. In the United States, ailanthus is recognized to be a serious agricultural pest.
NOTE: It is important not to confuse native shrubs and trees with ailanthus. Native sumacs (Rhus) and trees like ash (Fraxinus), hickory (Carya), black walnut, butternut and pecan (Juglans) can be distinguished from tree-of-heaven by having completely serrated (toothed) leaf margins.