- Historic Sites
A Tree Grows In America
Banished from public view in our cities, this two-hundred-year-old import is alive and well behind the scenes
April/May 1984 | Volume 35, Issue 3
“But the tree hadn’t died … it hadn’t died.
“A new tree had grown from the stump and its trunk had grown along the ground until it reached a place where there were no wash lines above it. Then it had started to grow toward the sky again…”
The girl who took heart from the tree’s indomitability was, of course, the teenager Francie Nolan, whom Americans came to love and admire in Betty Smith’s best-selling 1943 novel, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn , and whose stubborn resourcefulness the tree symbolized. The tree itself, as Brooklynites have learned, was the ailanthus, or tree of heaven, which was introduced into this country just two hundred years ago. It was altogether appropriate that Francie’s revered ailanthus was growing in her backyard, for even by World War I, the years in which the novel is set, the tree, once considered a suitable embellishment for the finest homes and boulevards, had fallen from grace and been condemned as a weed. Unruly, perhaps even noxious, it was just the kind of growth you would find in slum neighborhoods like the Nolans’. Indeed, wrote Betty Smith near the beginning of the book, it could be a harbinger of a neighborhood’s decay. If you went for a walk in a refined section of town and saw an ailanthus growing in someone’s yard, “you knew that soon that section of Brooklyn would get to be a tenement district. The tree knew. It came there first.”
The tree of heaven had not always had it so bad. For at least the first half of its two hundred years here the ailanthus was esteemed for its abundant foliage, its handsome form, its rapid growth, and its amazing imperviousness to disease. During the remainder of the period it has been steeped in controversy. Its critics say it is uncontrollable. Its defenders concede its faults, but they insist that it has been unjustly maligned.
Even to those unacquainted with botanical niceties, the ailanthus is easy to spot. It bears exotic-looking compound leaves somewhat resembling fern fronds, with small leaflets alternating on a stalk that may be anywhere from eighteen inches to a yard long. The effect, when the leaves sway in a breeze, is of a tropical tree—which is no coincidence, as the ailanthus is cousin to such tropical trees as the cashew and mango. Mature ailanthuses, with their smooth, gray bark, commonly reach forty or fifty feet in height, although some may climb above one hundred feet and there is a hundred-year-old specimen on Long Island with a trunk over nineteen feet in circumference. The ailanthus is found over most of the United States.
Every June, unfortunately, the ailanthus may be further identified by the disagreeable odor emitted by the flowers of the male (the female is not so afflicted). The trait has earned it the nickname “stink tree.” Later in the summer a keen observer may spot the seed floating away from the tree, borne by propellerlike wings that carry it far and wide and are responsible for its formidable ability to spread rampantly. Once rooted, it leaps up, often growing as much as twelve feet in a year.
The most beloved—or notorious—characteristic of the ailanthus, however, is its tenacity. The more wretched its surroundings, the more it seems to thrive, and to date it has proved to be unaffected by pollution. Give it a handful of cinders, plaster dust, or crushed asphalt, and it will flourish; a New York poet once remarked that ideal growing conditions could be provided for it by two dead vine leaves, a cigarette butt, and a paper clip. It is also extraordinarily difficult to eradicate: cut it to the ground, and it will swiftly send up new growth. Betty Smith summed up its fortitude: “No matter where its seed falls, it makes a tree which struggles to reach the sky. It grows in boarded-up lots and out of neglected rubbish heaps. It grows up out of cellar gratings. It is the only tree that grows out of cement. It grows lushly … survives without sun, water, and seemingly without earth. It would be considered beautiful except that there are too many of it.”
But the tree was once deemed beautiful, not only by the untold Francies of this world but also by experts. The tree is a native of China and was first brought to the attention of Europeans by a Jesuit priest named Pierre dlncarville who was traveling in the Orient in the 1740s. Eighteenth-century Europeans were constantly on the lookout for trees of the Far East and Pacific that might have economic value for the West. (An assignment to carry breadfruit trees from Tahiti to the West Indies was what started HMS Bounty on her ill-fated mission in 1787.) Incarville mistakenly thought the tree was a Chinese varnish tree, which was valued as a source of lacquer. He shipped some seeds to friends in Paris, who sent a batch to botanists in England. One Britisher, Philip Miller of the Physic Garden at Chelsea, decided correctly that it was not a varnish tree but something not hitherto seen in the West, and he named it Toxicodendron altissima —the first name because, although it was lovely, it gave him headaches, the second because it grew tall.