The Road to Master Naturalist: Oh No! Noxious Weed Alert ….. 

Probably best known as Tree of Heaven (ToH), Ailanthus altissima seems to be more widespread in the Albuquerque area and up in the East Mountains than I thought. And it’s officially on the noxious weed list for New Mexico.

How did this happen?

Anything but “heavenly,” ToH is a fast growing tree native to China where it’s highly valued for its medicinal properties. It was introduced to the east coast of US in the early 1700s as a horticultural specimen and a desirable, attractive and fast-growing shade tree, and was brought to the West coast shortly afterwards by Chinese immigrants wishing to benefit from its medicinal values.  

But like so many introduced species, ToH spread from gardens and yards, adapting quickly and alarmingly well to our natural ecosystems where it has spread like wildfire. Today, ToH is found throughout the US. 

A ToH Leaf showing smooth (entire) margins on each leaflet, except at the base where there are several gland-dotted teeth. Smooth Sumac leaflet margins are fully toothed (serrate).

Being a nonnative species, ToH populations grow unchecked in the absence of its natural pathogens. It adapts to almost any type of habitat and grows from sea level up to 7500’ feet.  One mature tree can produce thousands of seeds which rapidly sprout and develop an extensive root system, becoming a large taproot that releases a chemical in the soil that’s toxic to surrounding plants. And to make matters worse, all parts of the tree can release the toxic chemical into the surrounding soil killing off its competition!

Mature ToH showing the piles of winged fruits, called samaras. Each samara has one seed.

During the Master Naturalist’s tour of the Tijeras Creek Remediation Project (see my post on June 21, 2022), I learned that ToH had been successfully eliminated from the the project site after a lot of hard work, allowing for reestablishment of native species. Because there were no ToH trees remaining to observe, and because ToH is often confused with native sumacs and black walnuts, I decided to hunt one down to see what this noxious tree looks like.  

Close-up of my first journal page.

I didn’t have to go far.  Just across from the project area was a small population growing proudly alongside Hwy 66. Then I discovered more up the road about a mile, and when I got home I found several pockets of ToH growing in our subdivision!!!!  And all at once it seemed like ToH was everywhere, including a large robust population growing in one of our favorite Albuquerque Open Space hiking areas.  

AND HORRORS! I had made a classic rookie mistake by confusing Smooth Sumac, a desirable native tree that’s found in our area, for ToH.  This was serious, and not wishing to mess up future ID efforts, I decided to learn the differences between these two species and then how to control and eliminate ToH.

Control and elimination is very difficult, but even if I can educate the residents in my subdivision about the evils of this tree, maybe we can make a plan to remove the existing populations.  

Close-up of my second journal page.

So from those discoveries and questions these two pages happened. Nothing better than going down a rabbit trail with eyes wide open!

A ToH grove with young to mature trees.

6 Comments

  1. deliadealaska says:

    Hi Barb! I finally figured out how to comment on your posts without having to log into wordpress.

    My email is bombarded daily from all sorts of things so my best way to stay in touch with friends is text, phone, and social media. We sure miss you on there!

    I was thinking after reading your most recent post on the tree of heaven if you had considered sharing these posts, especially ones related to invasive spp. to your local news paper? John Morton, one of my mentors in FWS wrote a weekly/monthly article on some topic of conservtation, for the Kenai Peninsula Clarion. It was always well red and appreciated. Food for thought!

    We are staying busy here; me still trying to get plants planted (what’s new) and Carl doing various house/vehicle/boat projects. We have fire all around the interior so lots of smoke for days and days. Yesterday it was so bad it was the worst air quality anywhere in the world!

    I have to run but I wanted to say thanks for sharing all of the great art work and nature journaling. They are so much fun to read!

    -Delia 907-750-6046 delia.varkret@gmail.com

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    1. Wow! Delia! So happy to hear from you. Glad you were able to reach me through my blog. I was just thinking about you guys a few days ago …. About how I have missed our regular chats and was about to send an email. Are you neck deep in dahlias? I really miss following your gardening, photos, stories and videos about the dogs, and hearing about Carl. Bummer about the fires and smoke. Thanks to the summer monsoons, the biggest fire in NM is officially out, as are most of the others state-wide. It was pretty crazy for a while. Hey, thanks for the suggestion to share some of my posts with local news. I may look into that. Maybe I can use that idea as one of my Master Naturalist certification projects? Meanwhile, I plan to tackle our subdivision ToH problem. I’m so happy to hear your news ….. big hi and hug for Carl. Let’s stay in touch!

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  2. It is amazing — the (unfortunate in this case) resilience of some plants, and these ones thrive even more after fire! I wonder if a project could combine harvesting the medicinal properties while removing these plants? Wishing you luck with your subdivision, I think you’ll do a marvelous job educating and informing neighbors!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for the comments and thoughts, Karen! Hmmmmmm …… if a project involved both harvest of medicinals and extermination of the tree, it might encourage people to prioritize the medicinal value and just keep the tree rather than wipe it out of the US? It’s interesting to think about anyhow! Hmmmmmm!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. sgoodman56 says:

    I’m horrified by your description! I hope you can make your little place in the world safe from them. As always, I love hearing about all your adventures.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I was horrified too! Talk about a plant out of place! Awful!
      Thanks so much for reading my posts, Susan! What have you been up to lately?

      Like

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