Plant-Lore

Collecting the folklore and uses of plants

Tree-of-heaven

John Baxter, in his Woody Allen: A Biography (1999),  describes the Flatbush’s Public School 99,  in Brooklyn, New York, the first school which Allen attended in 1941:

‘A four-storey red-brick building on East 10th Street, its grim fire-station look isn’t ameliorated by the presence of a few sumachs of the type – Ailanthus glandulosa [now known as A. altissima] the tree of Betty Smith’s 1945 best-seller, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn – that was planted in the swampier areas of Brooklyn because of an imagined ability to dispel mists thought to cause tuberculosis and other diseases of immigrant communities’.

According to Smith, in the first chapter of her book:

‘Some people called it Tree of Heaven.  No matter where its seed fell, it made a tree which struggled to reach the sky.  It grew in boarded-up lots and out of neglected rubbish heaps, and it was the only tree that grew out of concrete.  It grew lushly, but only in the tenements districts’.

If you saw a young tree-of-heaven while walking through a ‘nice neighborhood’, you knew that you were approaching a rundown area.  A nickname for the tree is ghetto palm.

Native to China, tree-of-heaven is the only member of the mainly tropical family Simaroubaceae to be widely grown in Britain and Ireland, where it was first cultivated in the mid eighteenth century, and first recorded in the wild in 1935.  Now it is considered to be seriously invasive, though it does not yet seem to have spread far beyond urban areas  It is said that Ailanthus was the favourite tree of  the Quaker socialist Ada Salter, who in 1909 was elected as a  councillor in Bermondsey, south London.  Thus when she started her Beautification Committee in 1920, she ensured that many Ailanthus were planted throughout the borough.  It is said that when the Committee was active Ailanthus did not set seed in Britain, although it did presumably spread by suckering, so it was not seriously invasive.  Many Ailanthus trees of various ages can still be found around Bermondsey, but since the trees are believed to rarely exceed 50 years in age, it is improbable that any of Salter’s survive.

Images:  main, Palace Road, Brixton, London Borough of Lambeth, October 2020; upper inset, St James’s churchyard, Bermondsey, London Borough of Southwark, October 2020; middle inset,  fruiting, Battersea Road Cemetery, London Borough of Wandsworth, August 2020; lower inset, behaving as an invasive, St Nicholas churchyard. Mitcham, London Borough of Merton, June 2020.

Edited 22 November 2020.