12 Jan Tree of the Year 1989: Tree of Heaven
Ashland Plaza tree from late 1800s to 2006.
“Tree-of-heaven” or “Tree-from-hell?”
Botanical name: Ailanthus altissima
“Not long after the first buildings were sited around what is now the perimeter of Ashland’s downtown Plaza, someone thought to plant street trees. Of those early plantings, one tree has survived, growing as Ashland grew, flourishing even when the small town struggled, casting welcome shade on a dusty intersection of wagon roads that was eventually curbed and paved for cars.”Donn Todt and the Ashland Tree Commission
Why is it called Tree of Heaven?
In 2006, the Ashland Tree Commission praised the contributions of this tree to our community. They wrote that for “most of the years of Ashland’s history … it has cooled the Plaza in summer and allowed the low winter sun access in winter. It has cast shade on generations of Fourth of July revelers as they walked from the Parade on Main Street into Lithia Park. … The tree’s branches have provided perennial nesting sites for birds and the flowers have furnished a bounty of pollen and nectar for bees and insects. It has served as a magnificent tree that has anchored the front entrance to Lithia Park….”
Perhaps we should thank William Hamilton.
“It was William Hamilton of Philadelphia, an avid plant collector and landscape improver, who in 1784 introduced Ailanthus into North America, together with other Chinese trees including Ginkgo biloba, presumably sending the seeds from England himself.”Behula Shah
A native of China, Tree of Heaven was probably named Ailanthus altissima (altissima = very high or tallest) because it grows so quickly toward the sky. In its first years of life, it can grow five to ten feet per year. During the late 1700s and 1800s, it was considered a valuable shade tree for fancy American gardens and tough city streets.
In this article, I will use two names for the tree interchangeably: Tree of Heaven (common name) and Ailanthus (botanical name.)
Why is it also called Tree-from-hell?
Tree of Heaven has as “dark side” as well. Jim Gersbach described Portland, Oregon’s Tree of Heaven problem in the dramatic quote below.
“If tree-of-heaven was a pack of hungry lions loose on the streets, you wouldn’t be so calm.”Jim Gersbach, Portland’s Urban Forestry workshop instructor
That sounds overly dramatic! That calls for many exclamation points!! Don’t laugh it off as hyperbole. I will write more about an Ashland “Tree-from-hell” experience with Ailanthus later in this photo essay.
Our 1989 Tree of the Year’s mysterious origin
It’s unfortunate that this tree, which thrived in the heart of Ashland for more than 100 years, had such mysterious roots. Here’s what I mean by “mysterious.” We don’t have a record of when it was planted, why it was planted, or by whom it was planted.
Based upon historic photos of the Plaza, my best guess is that our 1989 Tree of the Year was planted in 1880. I’ll take you through the historic photos a few paragraphs down.
As mentioned above, Ailanthus was first brought to the Eastern United States in 1784 by a plant collector. According to Bruce Wenning, Ailanthus was later spread throughout the Western U.S. in the mid-1800s. He wrote: “The immigrant Chinese work force during the Gold Rush era brought this species to their new homeland. They used the bark and fruit for medicinal purposes and valued this tree as a cultural reminder of their homeland, China.”
That may be why local folklore credits Abel Helman’s Chinese cook with planting the Plaza Ailanthus tree. Circumstantial evidence: (1) Helman co-founded the Ashland Flour Mill in 1854. (2) Helman donated the Ashland Plaza grounds to the small community in 1855. You can see in the 1881 photo above that the Tree of Heaven was planted in the Ashland Plaza, in front of the flour mill.
Hannon and Todt punctured this folklore myth in the magazine of Southern Oregon Historical Society. They wrote: “Local folklore that the tree was planted by the Chinese cook of pioneer Abel Helman is untrue….” Their statement is based on personal communication with Abel Helman’s granddaughter, Almeda Helman Coder. An additional “puncture” comes from arborist Donn Todt, who wrote: “The rub to this story is that, despite a fairly detailed written history of early Ashland, there is no mention that Mr. Helman ever had a Chinese cook.”
Most descriptions of the Tree of Heaven say that it does not live long. According to multiple sources, the normal lifespan seems to be in the range of 30 to 70 years. That makes Ashland’s Tree of the Year an outlier. Based upon the 1881 photo, the Plaza Tree of Heaven must have been about 126 years old when it was cut down in 2006.
A photo history tour of Ashland Plaza (with a focus on the 1989 Tree of the Year)
Its life ended in 2006
By 2006, the Tree of Heaven was finally considered too much of a safety hazard to leave in such a well-traveled spot.
Writing for the Ashland Tree Commission, Todt described why the big old tree was cut down on February 16, 2006. “Then one night in the late 1970s a particularly strong winter windstorm toppled many large trees in Ashland, at the same time tearing a large branch from the ailanthus. An analysis the next morning by an astute arborist might have predicted future problems. Because all of the tree’s large limbs originate on the trunk from about the same location as the broken central branch, the loss of this critical limb meant that, over time, the tree would become compromised. It has been carefully pruned, thinned and cabled since then, to decrease the weight on its wide-spreading and heavy limbs and to help support them. These treatments, however, have only been a holding action rather than a long-term solution to the tree’s increasing structural weakness. Now the professional estimation of respected arborists over several years has resulted in the decision to remove the ailanthus for the safety of everyone who uses the Plaza at the main entrance to Lithia Park.”
Bryan Holley, a former Tree Commissioner, met me in the Ashland Plaza where the 1989 Tree of the Year lived its life. He showed me photos of large cracks in the heavy limbs. City employee Eric Setterberg had the courage to climb into the tree to get these close-up photos the day the tree was removed.
Bryan told me an effort was made to save enough of the trunk to build something in memory of the tree. This table in the Community Development building is that memory.
A table from the Tree of Heaven
William Olsen added another perspective to the story of this historic Ashland tree. He was given the trunk to work with. While the tree’s branches showed cracks and extensive damage, it was assumed that the large trunk would provide plenty of wood to build something nice.
Not so, as William found out. To begin, the trunk interior was rotten clear through. Even the hard wood remaining was dangerous to saw through. William found more than 20 nails and lag bolts inside the trunk, ones the tree had grown around and swallowed during its century of life. You may have noticed a large sign nailed or bolted to the tree in the 1895 photo above.
As a result of all these factors, William only found small pieces of useful wood from the large trunk. That is why the flat top of the table could not be made from Ailanthus wood. For the top, he used Claro black walnut from a tree that grew in Jacksonville. The legs and body of the table are made from the few usable pieces of our 1989 Tree of the Year.
“Tree-from-hell” stories: Invasive species. Outcompetes. Shoots 50 feet.
Here is a big-picture perspective from scientists in Pennsylvania and Virginia. “‘There are other invasive tree species in Pennsylvania, but the ailanthus, by far, has been here longer and does more damage than any other invasive tree,’ said Matthew Kasson, who received his doctorate in plant pathology and environmental microbiology from Penn State. ‘It’s the number one cause of native regeneration failure in clearcuts in Pennsylvania.'” [Swayne 2013]
The Virginia Department of Forestry also considers Ailanthus an invasive species. Their website states: “Once established, tree-of-heaven is perhaps among the fastest growing tree species in North America, often growing three feet to six feet in the first year…. Once established, Ailanthus density expands mainly by root sprouting. An acre of land can become dominated by root sprouts from the same individual tree.” The roots each tree sends out may travel 50 feet or more in any direction.
Oak Street invader
Here is a personal, Ashland perspective.
At the September 9, 2021 Ashland Tree Commission meeting, Oak Street resident Risa Buck stated that “the sprouts from these 19 [Ailanthus] trees are beginning to consume the landscape at 822 Oak Street and neighboring properties.” What may be surprising about this statement is that the trees didn’t start rapidly spreading until after they were cut down. That matches what I learned as I researched why Ailanthus is considered a dangerous invasive species.
The week after the Tree Commission meeting, Risa gave me a tour of the spreading invaders. The 19 trees cut down at ground level were in an open lot next door to her property. There are plans to develop that open lot for housing. The problem is that, unlike most plants and animals, Ailanthus trees refuse to die.
The story of Hydra and Hercules
The Ailanthus tree reminds me of the story of the nine-headed Hydra, a water-snake-like monster in Greek mythology. The second labor of Hercules was to kill the Hydra, which terrorized the countryside surrounding its lair. The problem – each time Hercules killed one of Hydra’s heads with his club, the monster would grow back two heads! According to the ancient stories, Hercules eventually prevailed. We could use someone like Hercules on Oak Street – and in many other places around the country where Ailanthus is spreading – right now in the 21st century.
Similarity with Hydra
How is the Ailanthus tree similar to Hydra? Consider this. With most trees that topple or are cut down, if new shoots or trunks regenerate, they do so only from the stump or main root-ball of the cut trees.
That’s not the case with Tree of Heaven. Nineteen Ailanthus trees were cut down, followed by at least three applications of herbicide, intended to kill the sprouts that came up, as you can see in the photo above.
Instead of that being the end of the story, during the months after the trees were cut down, hundreds of new Ailanthus tree shoots (future tree trunks) began sprouting from the ground. Some even grew anew where herbicide was used, as you can see by the red arrows in the previous photo.
I stated above that “the roots each tree sends out may travel 50 feet or more.” That is not an exaggeration. In fact, here on Oak Street, many baby Ailanthus trees are shooting up from 40 feet to 55 feet away from the cut tree stumps. Look again at the photo above. At the top of the photo, you can see where the ground begins to slope steeply downhill. Below are three photos from that slope. The first shows an overview of the slope, for perspective. The second shows how many new trees began sprouting in an area of just a few square feet. The third shows a close-up of a new sprout emerging from one of the tough roots. These photos were taken in September, 2021.
Some roots have even traveled from the tree stumps, underneath the property line fence, and sent up shoots in the middle of Risa’s vegetable garden.
Two more points related to a “Tree-from-hell” description for Ailanthus trees. Scientifically speaking, it is allelopathic. In layman’s terms, that means that the roots release a toxin that prevents other plants from growing nearby. That doesn’t sound like something you’d want to have in your vegetable garden, or anywhere nearby. Second, in addition to spreading through its roots, Ailanthus trees can spread hundreds of thousands of seeds to the nearby countryside from one mature tree.
You may start to notice them around town
Now that I have been digging deep into Tree of Heaven knowledge and lore, I have started to see them in my walks around town. Forestry articles say the trees do well in urban areas. They can handle both wet and dry conditions. They are little affected by pollution. And their roots can establish young trees in inhospitable places.
I recently noticed a group of Ailanthus trees along South Mountain Avenue next to the SOU parking lot. In addition to a dying old tree, you can see new sprouts and trunks coming up nearby (photos above).
Final thoughts about the 1989 Tree of the Year
I am trying to give a balanced perspective on the pros and cons of Tree of Heaven. I admit that I have been influenced by seeing in person just how invasive they can be, right here in town. That’s one reason the “tree-from-hell” section of this article is so long. I am sad that I didn’t pay much attention to the Plaza Tree of Heaven during the 15 years I lived here while the tree still lived. Here is one more photo of the 126 year old tree in 2006, two days before it was removed.
P.S. It is fitting that…
I think it is fitting that the Parks Department replaced the Tree of Heaven, a native of China, with a Ginkgo tree, also a native of China.
Anon. “Control and Utilization of Tree-of-Heaven,” Virginia Department of Forestry. [Accessed online 12/2021]
Buck, Risa. Interview on September 14, 2021 and other communication.
Downs, Matthew and Key, Patrick. “Tree-of-heaven Control, November 10, 2016. [Accessed online 9/2021]
Hannon, Nan and Todt, Donn. “A Tree Grows in Southern Oregon – The History of the ‘Tree of Heaven,'” Southern Oregon Heritage Today, February 1999 (Vol. 1, No. 2).
Holley, Bryan. Interview on September 27, 2021 and other communication.
Website: “Tree-of-heaven Eradication Now!” [Accessed online 10/2021]
Quote on the home page of the website: “If tree-of-heaven was a pack of hungry lions loose on the streets, you wouldn’t be so calm” J. Gersbach – Portland’s Urban Forestry Workshop Instructor
Shah, Behula. “The Checkered Career of Ailanthus altissima,” Arnoldia. [Accessed online 10/2021]
Swayne, Matthew. “Ailanthus tree’s status as invasive species offers lesson in human interaction,” Penn State News, June 24, 2013. [Accessed online 9/2021]
Todt, Donn and the Ashland Tree Commission. “Ashland Bids a Fond Farewell to the Plaza’s Historic Tree-of-Heaven,” submitted to Ashland Daily Tidings, March 3, 2006 by Bryan Holley of the Tree Commission.
Wenning, Bruce. “Tree of Heaven: An Exotic Invasive Plant Fact Sheet,” May 15, 2014. [Accessed online 10/2021]