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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
In 1784 the tree was introduced into America by a prominent Philadelphian, William Hamilton, who is known for being the first importer of several other trees now common in the United States, among them the ginkgo, the Norway maple, and the Lombardy poplar. The luxuriant, rapid growth of Hamilton’s new import attracted wide attention, but Miller’s Latin name for it was not readily accepted. The situation was further confused shortly thereafter by a French botanist, René Desfontaines, who felt certain he had seen the species illustrated in a book about the flora of the Molucca Islands, northeast of Java. The Moluccan tree was the ailanto , a local word meaning “tree of heaven”—again because it grew tall. Desfontaines converted the name to ailanthus , and his label caught on. But Miller’s label also persisted, and all during the nineteenth century the tree carried two competing names. Only in this century did authorities settle on a name that, though somewhat redundant, gives credit to both Miller and Desfontaines: Ailanthus altissima .
Meanwhile, the plant itself was catching on in the United States. Early settlers in need of a quick-growing tree were delighted by its vigor. They also noted that it made excellent firewood, yielding a clean, hot flame which rivaled that produced by oak, black walnut, or birch. When experts reported that its leaves were eaten in China by larvae that produced tough pongee silks, widespread but unavailing efforts got under way to found a silk industry based on the ailanthus in this country. Cabinetmakers liked it; it was strong and took a high polish. And when properly seasoned, they said, it would not shrink or warp.
Most suprising in view of its later downfall, however, was its initial popularity as a street tree. Admittedly this was due at least in part to the promotional efforts of a Long Island nurseryman named William Prince, who imported large numbers of the tree starting around 1820 and persuaded New Yorkers to plant it everywhere. By 1840 it had displaced the more disease-prone linden and the horse chestnut along the city’s thoroughfares and side streets. But it was also being set out along the streets of Boston and Baltimore, both of which needed a tree resistant to soot and smoke. No less a horticultural eminence than Charles Sargent, founder and first director of Boston’s Arnold Arboretum, declared that “for hardiness and rapidity of growth, for the power to adapt to the dirt and smoke, the dust and drought of cities, for the ability to thrive in the poorest soil, for beauty and for usefulness, this tree is one of the most useful which can be grown in this climate …”
The ailanthus was also taking root on its own all across the country. By the 1880s it was running wild in Virginia and neighboring states and becoming thick around St. Louis. It also had become plentiful in the foothills of California’s Sierra Nevada; historians presume that the seeds were brought from China, perhaps by Chinese immigrants hired to work in the mines during the gold rush.
Slowly, however, word got around that the ailanthus had a few faults. Its ability to grow anywhere could become positively invasive: if you chopped an ailanthus seedling down in one place, it might sprout again ten or a hundred feet away. Cabinetmakers became disillusioned too: the ailanthus looked strong, but the young wood had a tendency to split. Street maintenance personnel noted the same trait: high winds or snowstorms split the trunks or branches, necessitating massive cleanup work. Worst of all was the aroma of the male blossoms: botanists knew that the scent attracted insects and was therefore crucial to the tree’s reproductive cycle, but humans strolling beneath the tree were not charmed.
The objectionable smell, in fact, was soon suspected of being harmful. When the ailanthus was first introduced, it was advertised as healthful, as its luxuriant foliage would absorb noxious vapors and thus enhance people’s well-being. Malaria, for example, was thought to result from breathing bad air; maybe the tree of heaven could prevent it. But when the incidence of sickness failed to drop, people turned around and blamed the ailanthus. “Might not this tree,” said one opponent, “which so fully absorbs poison, also throw off toxic effluvia? May it not store up the noxious gases and again let them forth in the flowering season?” The stink tree had become a villain. Botanists began reporting cases of “ailanthus fever”: one man in Boonsboro, Maryland, suffered from sore throat, nausea, and inability to sleep at night for three weeks.