Sunday, June 29, 2008

A Tree with Many Names

I've been studying up on this tree. Maybe you know the one. It's the Tree of Heaven, but some call it the Tree of Hell because it grows in ruins. Because of its rancid peanut odor, some call it the Stink Tree, because it thrives in neglected neighborhoods, the Ghetto Palm.

It arrived in this country from Asia in the late 17th Century as a purveyor of the chinoiserie fashionable at the time. Back then there was some confusion among taxonomists who labeled it Rhus succedanea, grand vernis du Japon, Toxicodendron altissima, Rhus Sinese foliis alatis, Rhus cacodendron, Ailanthus glandulosa, and finally Ailanthus Altissima, which means, more or less, the tallest tree of heaven.

It leaves are food for various moths including a variety of silkworms that produce a dull silk called Shantung, it's bark creates medicine for balding, cancer, malaria, cardiac palpitation, asthma, dysentery and epilepsy, and the tree produces toxins that poison competing seedlings. It wants to be left alone to grow, to grow as tall as it can in its brief 50 - 75 year life span. Betty Smith made it famous, it's the tree that grows in Brooklyn. How does one plant get so many names?


City Mouse said...

My old-timer neighbor calls 'em "Brooklyn Trees."

Lo said...

I love the ailanthus for it's metaphoric potential. Though, Betty Smith did it best.

Xris (Flatbush Gardener) said...

I like the Toxicodendron appelation. That would make it a relative of poison ivy!

Old First said...

When I was a kid in Bedford Stuyvesant we called it "shumac" (not that we ever spelled it). I had this nomenclature confirmed a few years ago by a native of "downtown" Hoboken.