A Tree Grows In America

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There was indeed, and is, a mild medical problem. The odoriferous male flowers produce pollen that the wind distributes far and wide, and some people are allergic to it. But more allergies are produced by the pollen of such standbys as beech, birch, elm, oak, and poplar. The tree is actually more menacing to other plants than to people. According to some botanists its leaves contain a substance that leaches out with the rain and runs into the soil and is mildly toxic to both evergreens and deciduous trees growing nearby. Thus does the ailanthus guard its turf. Cities stopped planting the ailanthus; New York banned its use as an official street tree, as did other communities. The anti-ailanthus campaign culminated in an ordinance adopted in 1875 by the District of Columbia: “That ailanthus trees, the flowers of which produce offensive and noxious odors, in bloom, in the cities of Washington and Georgetown, or the more densely populated suburbs of said cities, are hereby declared nuisances injurious to health; and any person maintaining such nuisance, who shall fail, after due notice from this board, to abate the same, shall, upon conviction, be fined not less than five nor more than ten dollars for every such offense.” The ordinance is still on the books in the nation’s capital.

EXCEPT OFFICIALLY , the ailanthus has not suffered one whit. Banished from the boulevards, it has taken to parking lots, junk heaps, railroad yards, and excavations. New York records indicate that there are some two million trees growing in the city’s parks, including a few decorative ailanthuses that have escaped censure; about half a million trees other than the ailanthus line the city streets; but at least half a million renegade ailanthuses flourish, independent and unauthorized, in crevices, deserted lots, air shafts, and backyards.

Other countries, blessed perhaps by less invasive varieties, look with favor on the ailanthus. New Zealanders cultivate it for timber. The British enjoy its pleasing form and do not find that it spreads unduly. In fact, the Royal Horticultural Society distributes ailanthus seeds free to its members. The Chinese, for their part, have never ceased to approve of it. They affectionately call it the “spring tree,” as it is one of the last to leaf out in the springtime and can thus be relied on to show that the hard winter is finally gone. Ailanthus wood is used to make the kitchen steamers that are essential to much of Chinese cuisine. In times past, the root of the tree, ground up and mixed with the urine of small boys, was considered good medicine for persons who were psychologically unbalanced; ailanthus leaves, pulverized with those of the catalpa and the peach tree, were thought to help cure baldness when they were smeared over the head.

In the United States it continues to please millions who are glad for the greenery it provides where otherwise there would likely be none. Some horticulturists believe that careful breeding might produce an ailanthus that would spread yet smell less, though no such program is under way. “If we could only make it sterile,” says one arboretum official, “we’d have a very fine ornamental tree that everyone could plant.”

Now and then in America the ailanthus still officially wins out. A few years ago in New York City a developer threatened to cut down a seventy-year-old, five-storyhigh specimen that was in the way of his bulldozers. Neighbors objected and took him to court, whereupon the judge ruled against him. The tree was to stay. Francie Nolan would have cheered.