Tree of Heck

We have about 3000 sq ft of mixed border surrounding (in multiple layers) our 1500 sq ft home.  We take care of everything ourselves, in our spare time (ha!!).  Thus, our maintenance schedule BARELY includes cutting back perennials and ornamental grasses Feb-March, plus any pruning needed for woodies…then some fits of weeding throughout the growing season.

Most of this stuff has been in the ground for five to eight years, and we have a high tolerance for nature taking its course.  We’re surrounded by deciduous forest, so of course trees pop up where they’re not supposed to, especially oaks and the occasional hickory, which I dearly love and hate to remove. But I do. Because seedling trees are about impossible to just yank out like a weed – a whip just a few feet tall will have a taproot as long.   With our stringent maintenance regime, they’re usually tall enough to poke up over the Panicum or loom over the Leucanthemum by the time I notice, so then digging becomes the only option.

Or, wait, maybe just cut it back really hard, like below the soil line.  That’ll kill it, right? Nope?  Back again? Chop, chop, hack, hack.  Most saplings will give up after a few years. Except this one:

Ailanthus altissima a.k.a. “Tree of Heaven.”

Most of you know this is a totally invasive doody-head of a tree.  Google for details if not familiar.  I thankfully have not had much experience with it, until the past few years – there must be a mature one in the area.  It would pop up here and there in our borders and blueberry field, but I didn’t think much of it. Grab the loppers, cut it back.  BIG mistake.

Behold, the most ridiculous root:shoot ratio ever:

ailanthusrootBunny, our pensive 40 lb whippet, for scale. 

I had lopped this individual back three years in a row. All I could see were the pale, unbranched shoots, not very imposing at all, so chop, chop.   But finally, after a heroic effort last evening, it was successfully ripped from the heart of our main perennial border. Joel had to use our John Deere 950 tractor with a brush grabber chain to get this out of the ground, even after 20 minutes of his digging around the root to get the chain attached.

Like some kind of sea monster, my repeated attempts to kill it apparently just made it angry.  And stronger.

It’s still out there, on our burn pile.
A dog barks in the night.







9 thoughts on “Tree of Heck”

  1. Interesting to see the whole thing like that. We managed to kill one in the azalea border by cutting it back every year (usually at least twice a year) for what seemed like 10 years. Haven’t seen it in the last few years so I’m assuming it’s dead. I hope I never see another one. They stink, in more ways than one.

  2. Holly, Holly, Holly, asan old fart forester I can attest to how difficult these are to eradicate. I fear you have left root tips in the ground that will sprout every where…. has long arms. Be prepared to dig out the formerly suppressed roots as they sprout. Eventually you may win.

    BTW… did you know this was the tree that grew in Brooklyn?

  3. Too bad no one has anything good to say about this tree: I suppose in it’s natural environment, with it’s companion plants, it looks like it belongs. But here in America, specifically Southern Cal. it looks out of place. In amongst buildings it’s okay and I keep one in a pot just to have one. Hmm…one more thing about this tree, if you like to prune sections and see it come back year after year then this is a great tree to have. A Mulberry is better since it has fruit and grows just as fast.

  4. Speaking of coming back year after year… as a service forester with the state of Virginia, my primary responsibility was providing forest managment expertise to private landowners. One day while walking a property with a farmer we emerged from the edge of a hardwood stand into a strip of Ailanthus that was about a chain wide (66ft). I commented to the farmer that i bet he wished he was rid of it. His reply took back a bit. He said no. He found it very useful. It seems the leaves are very palatable to live stock and when we had a dry summer and his pasture got short he would fell them for the livestock to browse on. This kept their bellies full and kept them from “hollerion” all day and night. Go figure. Don’t know what the nutritional value of them is, but it helped keep peace in the neighborhood. Here in the valley we hit those kinda summers every three or four years, so they never got real large in betwwen and were a cinch to come back for the next emergency meal needed.

  5. I haven’t had any experience with the “Ailanthus altissima” personally but one of my buddies back in my home town told me about this exact tree. He wanted to put a garden in an area that had a few of these trees. He said he didn’t realize that it was going to take him 3 years to finally get rid of them. He ended up putting the garden in another area while he continued the fight with the Tree of Heaven.

  6. I have a very large female tree of heaven in my back yard. Given the size of it and the relatively short life spans of these things, I suspect that it’s nearing the end of its life expectancy. I plan to have it professionally removed in a couple of years (once I can get the money together) so in the meantime, my efforts comprise of plucking its babies out of the ground and digging out its older children that the previous owners didn’t notice or didn’t care about. In all fairness to the tree though, the specimen I have is a very beautiful tree. I just wish that the bulk of my summer wasn’t spent preventing it from spreading.

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