Tree-of-Heaven
(Or Maybe Not!)

By William T. Hathaway

Tree-of-Heaven (Ailanthus altissima)

This tall tree often with low-sweeping, palm-like branches appeals to the imagination of some outdoor folks. They visualize it as with somewhat of a heavenly statue or a tree of paradise. In a more earthly approach we realize that the Tree-of-Heaven (Ailanthus altissima) is a tall, occasionally obnoxious tree that is a weedy, naturalized import from China.

Its small, greenish flowers, bunched in clinging clusters, bring forth a most unpleasant odor in early summer seasons. In fact, the large tree planted years ago in front of the old Whitmell Farm Life School in Pittsylvania County caused many newly arrived students a bit of embarrassment — not knowing the source of such a god-awful odor.

Some native Pittsylvanians call this tree a “Kapok Tree,” which is a name handed down by old-timers. This species has spread to woodland borders and waste ground throughout Pittsylvania County.

My photo illustrates how to distinguish an immature Tree-of-Heaven from the typical immature Black Walnut Tree. Young naturalists soon learn that the Tree-of-Heaven has notched leaflets, whereas the Black Walnut leaves are not notched.

This photo was taken in October 1989 at Tomahawk Mill (once known as Anderson's Mill) in Pittsylvania County, Virginia.

(See also this photograph in larger format.)


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