Tree of Heaven

Ailanthus altissima

Ailanthus altissima, or the Tree of Heaven, has a bad reputation. It is often called the ‘Ghetto Palm’ or even the ‘Tree of Hell’ for it’s prolific invasiveness and difficult eradication. Though undesirable to many, this tree has some lesser-known, but remarkable credentials!

A. altissima is native to northeastern China and Taiwan and was accidentally introduced to Europe in 1751. The tree was introduced to the United States in 1784, on purpose this time, to function as a fast-growing ornamental shade tree. By the early 1900’s people’s views of A. altissima shifted and it is now seen as a rampant invader. This tree can grow just about anywhere, and has become naturalized in the United States, seen growing out of any small cracks or crevices in patios and sidewalks, wreaking havoc on building foundations and urban infrastructure. For context, one of these trees survived the Hiroshima A-bomb, only 300 m from where the bomb went off – and is still alive to tell the tale!

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The Ghetto Palm in it’s natural habitat.

This tree is deciduous, fast-growing, and opportunistic. It blooms mid-April to July with clusters of small yellow to red flowers, and male trees emit a foul smell while flowering to attract insects – some have described the smell as similar to ‘rancid cashews’. A. altissima boasts dark green odd- or even-pinnately compound leaves, and can reach heights of almost 30 m tall! This extremophile has been known to grow anywhere and everywhere such as along forest edges, roadsides, in agricultural fields and even reclaimed surface-mined lands, to name a few. A. altissima has even been known to concentrate mercury in it’s tissues and absorb sulfur dioxide in its leaves, making it one of the most pollution-tolerant tree species!

Out of it’s native range A. altissima can take over and displace indigenous plants. It’s seeds can germinate and grow in a wide variety of soils, they have the ability to tolerate high heat, extreme droughts, severe air pollution, and therefore thrive in degraded urban sites where most other species cannot persist. In certain parts of the world A. altissima can grow by as much as 2 m per year, and is thought to be the fastest growing tree in North America! Additionally, it is known to send up suckers from tap roots every 5 – 10 cm, allowing very dense thickets to grow and choke out competing species.

A toxic compound (ailanthone) has been found with A. altissima leaf decomposition. This is called allelopathy, and it inhibits any nearby plants from encroaching on A. altissima. The tree even has a secondary toxin that deters common pests, such as insects and the white-tailed deer from browsing it.

In China, A. altissima was mentioned in the oldest extant dictionary, proving significance almost 2000 years ago. A. altissima has been listed in countless Chinese medical texts for it’s ability to cure everything from baldness to mental illness. The allelopathic chemical, ailanthone, is commonly sold in Chinese medicine shops as an antimalarial agent, and other parts of the plant possess anti-anaphylactic and anti-inflammatory properties. Today, the leaves, roots and bark are all still used in traditional Chinese medicines.

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A. altissima branch, depicting pinnate compound leaves and cluster of flowers. 

Not only is this tree hugely significant in traditional Chinese medicine, it is important agriculturally and economically in China. A. altissima has been cultivated specifically as a host plant for the ailanthus silkmoth (Samia cynthia). This silkmoth produces silk that is stronger and cheaper than most commonly produced silks.

Lastly, this tree made it’s claim to fame in modern fiction as depicted in Betty Smith’s 1943 book ‘A Tree Grows in Brooklyn’. A. altissima was the central metaphor in the book as it symbolizes the people of Brooklyn fighting for sun and air necessary for their survival in the harsh urban metropolis.

Aside from having important cultural, medicinal and fictional significance, A. altissima has a place in permaculture. In areas where nothing else can grow, brownfields and forgotten places where garbage debris has built up for years and leached toxins into the degraded soil, this tree will thrive.

Cultivating A. altissima for fiber can help to mitigate climate change, reduce pesticide use, remediate heavy-metal laden soils and has the potential to create economic outcomes for people living in invaded ecosystems. Additionally, as they are such fast growing trees, A. altissima can be great for coppicing, the wood burns very well and also makes excellent mulch. If in need of a windbreak, look no further! As it’s so fast growing, a once harsh environment can be made into a nice, sheltered space – prime real estate for less tolerant species.

Moral of the story: don’t judge a tree by it’s invasive tendencies – especially the Tree of Heaven, it’s got some pretty redeeming qualities!

 

References:

Ailanthus altissima. Retrieved May 23, 2016 from: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ailanthus_altissima

Conservationists call for ban on ‘Tree of hell’ that threatens to damage native plants. Retrieved May 23, 2017 from: http://www.independent.co.uk/environment/nature/conservationists-call-for-ban-on-tree-of-hell-that-threatens-to-damage-native-plants-9818530.html

Ghetto Conservancy. Retrieved May 25, 2017 from: http://www.oliverk.org/art-projects/proposals/ghetto-conservatory

Invasive Trees in Colorado. Part 1. Retrieved June 1, 2017 from: https://permaculturenews.org/2012/02/16/invasive-trees-in-colorado-part-i/

Tree of Heaven: An Exotic Invasive Plant Fact Sheet. Retrieved May 23, 2017 from: http://www.ecolandscaping.org/05/invasive-plants/tree-of-heaven-an-exotic-invasive-plant-fact-sheet/

Permaculture Perspectives: Looking through the lenses of two Earth-muffins

Two people that have stood out to me on this journey, likely because I’ve seen such differences between them, are ‘Meat-Punk’ Max and Oliver Kellhammer.

Max chatted with us about his unique lifestyle. He is a provocative advocate of simple living, hunting and eating an animal-heavy diet. At first I was very off-put by his hunting stories and reasoning behind such acts. Once I gave myself time to critically think about the stories I heard from Max, I was able to absorb and better understand the theories behind his lifestyle.

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Max sharing stories about wild food foraging and living sustainably.

One of the most thought-provoking things that Max brought up was the idea of taking more responsibility as humans in the anthropocene. To him this means accepting that we are, and maybe should be, ingesting some of the toxins that we have introduced into the environment, which are bioaccumulating animals. This is a topic that my thoughts returned to as Oliver was teaching us. Oliver has focused much of his permaculture efforts around ruderal ecologies, in urban settings, therefore having to design with a variety of contaminants present. He has called permaculture “planetary first aid”, which I think is very appropriate, especially in degraded urban areas. It’s interesting to think about how different plants can thrive in brownfields and bioaccumulate new anthropic, toxic, minerals.

Oliver, like Max, wants to take responsibility for the toxins we have introduced into the environment, but he is striving to do so in a different way. Contrary to Max, accepting toxins in his food and eating them as a responsible Earth citizen, Oliver does not want people to have to consume these toxins. He mentioned plant bioaccumulation ‘mining’ as a new field to emerge. This could mean planting black locust (Robinia pseudoacacia) to remediate a lead contaminated system, then utilizing this wood for building or furniture making. There are so many ways to examine this problem!

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Boss-man Oliver laying down some knowledge for us.

Max and Oliver are both Earth-advocates and permaculture practitioners, but in very different ways. Oliver is an intentional permaculturist. He designs within the permaculture framework, he teaches permaculture, and he is doing permaculture. Max lives his life functionally and sustainably, and that happens to be in line with the permaculture principles.

Max retreated to Cortes Island in search of a quieter, wilder life (more zone 5 spaces), whereas Oliver has thrived and created in New York City, or as he calls it, the “asshole of capitalism” (~ zones 1 – 3). Seeing the dichotomy between lifestyles as well as where they are choosing to live their lives was interesting, especially since both Max and Oliver are pursuing many common goals.

People can travel the same paths in very different ways, and sometimes I struggle with comprehending these discrepancies. Initially I wrote Max off – I didn’t understand him and I didn’t think I wanted to. People give plants bad reputations all the time, and sometimes it just takes time to see the wonderful properties they may have. Take scotch broom (Cytisus scoparius) for example – I used to despise that invader. But, it is nitrogen fixing, stabilizing, bee-attracting and boasts medicinal uses! With time and critical thinking, we can come to understand different perspectives and approaches to moving through the similar systems. Different strokes for different folks!

Care For Your Peeps

Two of the main principles in permaculture design are ‘care for the people’ and ‘care for the Earth’. These two are inextricably linked and one cannot come without the other. On Linnaea Farm the ‘care for the people’ ethic is ever-present and apparent everywhere you look.

Leading up to our stay on Linnaea, life was busy and bustling and messy. In the midst of our stay on Linnaea, life was still busy and bustling and messy. But what made a difference for me was the supportive community we had built, and the one we’d been welcomed into.

Stop. Look. Listen. Feel. After getting settled we awoke early on our first morning at the farm and joined together for something called ‘sit spot’. We wandered across the farm, through dewy fields and up onto soft mossy bluffs overlooking Gunflint Lake. The scene before us was idealistic, the glassy lake, with mist rolling off, and the sun just reaching over the tree-tops into the bluebird skies. We sat in silence (save for the trees and grass whispering, swallows and redwing blackbirds singing, rooster cocka-doodle-dooing and farm beginning to come to life), and observed our surroundings. After taking those moments to ourselves, feeling the warm sunshine on our winter-skin, and reflecting upon the beautiful morning we were a part of, I felt like I was able to unwind. I unwound just in time to excitedly re-wind and get ready to learn! Taking time for ourselves in a busy world has the potential to drastically change how we care for it. Caring for the people leads to the ability to care for the land.

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Gunflint Lake as seen from the swim rocks – where we basked during ‘sit spot’ and spent most of our sunshiney free time.

Pursuing a science degree, I have often felt that my creativity has been suppressed as I’ve focused on narrow views and strictly analytical practices. Though I have gained an immense amount of knowledge over the past 5 years of my university career, I struggle with the practical application of that knowledge. Permaculture has allowed me to tie together what I have learned throughout my schooling, and life, and given me space to practice those teachings as well as get creative. Being a permie is interdisciplinary, we come from all over, with different skill-sets, and being able to work together has been so refreshing. I feel cared for while practicing permaculture. As Adam said, “I want to get life on me!” I hear ya, Adam. I have wanted to get life on me and get doing for so long, and permaculture has allowed me to pursue the science that I love and integrate it into other passions, with other passionate people! Our mentors and teachers at Linnaea have cared for us as they have made permaculture accessible and pulled on everyone’s individual skills to make us feel capable and confident.

As Tamara, executive director and farmer extraordinaire, has reiterated many times over, Linnaea Farm is a very special place – there is a unique kind of energy here. Even as a transient guest to the farm I felt that energy flowing so easily and abundantly, which I will take home and translate into continued care for the people and for the Earth.

 

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Tamara McPhail: Farmer-babe extraordinaire.

We were asked by Oliver Kellhammer, “what can you give the Earth that already has everything?” Permaculture is caring for the Earth, though the Earth may not always need us, we need it and it is caring for us!