I don’t know what most people’s impressions are of Ailanthus altissima, or, indeed, if most people ever even think about this tree.
My first memories of this tree are fleeting and yet distinct in their own way; distinct in that I always viewed it passively, from the car window, going at 30, 45, 50 miles an hour. It always piqued my curiosity in a way no other plant did – it was so close and yet so unapproachable, separated by space and movement. This tree of heaven only appeared on roadsides, and so always beckoned me, a mirage – the more I approached it in my mind’s plane, the further it receded into the distance just beyond my reach. The ailanthus was the equivalent of that thought or idea or word that you’re grasping for, is right on the tip of your tongue, but you just can’t think of. The ailanthus is the déjà vu of the plant world.
What about it was so appealing to me?
I can write volumes about this humble and yet mysterious plant.
I never did touch it in my childhood – it simply didn’t grow anywhere that I frequented (or I just never noticed it). And then, suddenly, a couple of years ago, I found it inhabiting all parts of the land that I was farming. It comes out of the ground rather easily when young, with a tough but rather shallow taproot. It gives off a foetid odor (the Chinese call it chòuchūn (臭椿, “stinking spring”) , as if it were a defense mechanism about being so abruptly and rudely disturbed from the place where the forces of nature determined that it would take root.
Modern practitioners of Chinese medicine use the leaves, bark, and roots for their astringent properties, among other uses. And it hosts the ailanthus silkmoth.
It does have allelopathic properties, meaning it suppresses plant growth within its proximity.
This is such a low-status plants, that it is considered by a number of authorities to be an “unwanted organism.”
It resists many types of pollution and low-pH soild.