For some unknown reason, the tree that many people call "tree of heaven" or "paradise tree" after its Chinese local name, was brought to North America from the Far East in the late 1700s. The bearer must have meant well, for the ailanthus (Ailanthus altissima) isn't a terrible-looking tree. It grows straight-to 60' or 80' tall-and quickly.
You'll find it in a wide "natural" range that stretches from the Plains States to the East Coast and northern Michigan to Florida's panhandle. In fact, heat or cold doesn't hinder this species much. Nor poor soil. Nor city smog and smoke. Even dryness won't bother it. And the tree can survive submergence in salt water. So, there's little to stop its propagation (it spreads by seeds and sprouts from its deep root system). In many places, the ailanthus has become a real nuisance by aggressively crowding out native or ornamental species.
So why give this tree a bad rap? For one thing, it stinks. The blossoms of the male ailanthus produce a stench. The leaves and wood also have a formidable and unpleasant odor. And, it's not a very convincing shade tree. Nor does ailanthus live long-maybe 75 years. Lastly, ailanthus wood looks like white ash, but is weak and brittle.
Ailanthus' only claim to fame is that it is the tree referred to in the book and motion picture A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. Unfortunately, it really does.
Illustration: Jim Stevenson