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