Gardening Magazine

Plant of the Week: Ailanthus Altissima

By Davis Landscape Architecture @DavisLandArch
Ailanthus altissima samara (15/08/2011, London)

Ailanthus altissima samara (15/08/2011, London)

Position: Full sun

Soil: Moist, loamy soil

Flowering period: Summer

Eventual Height: 25m

Eventual Spread: 15m

Hardiness: USDA Zone 4a-8b

Family: Simaroubaceae

Ailanthus altissima is a fast growing, short lived medium sized deciduous tree. All parts of the tree have a distinctive odour. The bark is smooth, light gray becoming roughr with age. Its leaves are large, pinnate, arranged alternately on the stem and are dark green on the upper side and white green on the under. The leaves turn a golden red coulur in autumn. The dioecious flowers are small and appear in large pinicles, are yellow green to redish in color and appear in May.  The male flowers emit an unpleasant odour to attract pollinating insects. The seeds then mature on the female tree and each are encapsulated in a 2.5cm long samara which appear in July and August. These may remain on the tree until the following spring.

A. altissima, commonly known as the Tree of Heaven, is native to north east and central China and Taiwan. The tree was introduced into Europe by Jesuit Pierre Nicholas D’Incarville in the 1740′s. There then followed nearly two centurays of confusion over the naming of this tree until finally is was named Ailanthus altissima in 1957 by Walter T. Swingle. This tree has naturalised across much of Europe. It is considdered an invasive weed in a significant number of countries throughout the world. The tree produces a chemical called ailanthone which suppresses the growth of other plants in its proximity.

The name Ailanthus  is from the Moluccan name ailanto meaning sky tree. Altissima is from the Latin meaning ‘tallest’.

Ailanthus altissima (15/08/2011, London)

Ailanthus altissima (15/08/2011, London)

The landscape architect may find this plant useful as a fast growing medium sized parkland tree with interesting leaves, bark and samara. It has also been used to revegetate areas where acid mine drainage has occurred. It is useful for its drought and pollution tolerant properties but care should be taken when locating this tree as it will not tolerate flooding or deep shade. Care should also be taken when locating this tree as it may cause damage to subterranean drainage pipes. This tree often suckers from the base.

This plant will tolerate almost any soil conditions; it will be happy in neutral, alkaline or acid pH levels. It will thrive in loam, or sand based soils and will grow in nutrient poor soils.

Ecologically this tree will attract  lepidoptera which utilise its foliage as a food source. Bees are attracted to this tree for its pollen.

Maintenance: Requires little to no maintenance. Dead or damaged material may be removed in late winter to early spring. Suckers from the base should be removed in early spring.

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