Childhood memories of the tree of heaven

When I was a child, things were very simple and peaceful. I was out almost all day long, playing with my friends, without any worries. No bad wolves were out on the streets, as they are nowadays, so that our parents could let us stay home alone, with the key hanging by a cord around our neck. Oh, sweet times! I was out with my friends from 9 a.m. to 10 p.m., so now I am wondering where did all that go? My grandchildren can't stay out alone, much less to stay out all day long. Instead, they are playing games on the smart phone! In the meantime, many trees are cut down, more and more every day and that is very sad.
Of course, I was just exaggerating when I said I was a princess. But I felt like one at my grandfather's house. My friends and I played with our dolls and dishes on a carpet, under a tree of heaven. We would bring bread, tomatoes, cheese and bell peppers, for a snack. But we were also cooking for our dolls, with the tree's leaves, flowers or seeds. This is how I learned about the tree of heaven so well, that I would recognize it anywhere.

Tree of heaven with female seed clusters

The tree of heaven is an Asian native

Tree of heaven is a deciduous tree in the family Simaroubaceae, native to China and Taiwan (even in Indonesia, to the south), but growing mainly in the temperate zone. The tree of heaven can grow up to 49 feet (15 meters) in 25 years, but it can live even 100 years. The tree can clone itself through suckers, but it can reproduce even faster through its numerous 'flying' seeds. It is also called stinking sumac or Chinese sumac, because it is related to the sumac, coming from the same botanical order Sapindales. Actually, only its leaves are similar to the sumac's and that's what makes them look similar - only the tree of heaven's leaves are smoother and luscious. The common name comes from its Latin name, Ailanthus altissima, also coming from the Ambonese (language of an ethnic group in Indonesia) the word 'ailanto' meaning "heaven tree" or "tree reaching for the sky" and 'altissima' meaning "very high" in Latin - because of its unusual height.

The tree of heaven has a distinct appearance

Its leaves are large and pinnately compound, with 10-41 leaflets, arranged in pairs. The flowers are green to reddish, very small, but numerous, growing in large panicles. In my country (Romania) they bloom in June. Ailanthus trees are dioecious, meaning they have male and female flowers, on different trees. Male flowers are numerous and they spread a scent to attract insects for pollinating.

Tree of heaven with male flower clusters blooming

The fruits grow on the female trees, in clusters. Each flower cluster grows into a seed cluster which may contain hundreds of very small seeds, each encapsulated in a samara - a winged achene. When the achenes dry off in the fall, the wind carries them around. Wherever they touch the ground, the seeds sprout fast, even in the house wall cracks.

Tree of heaven dry seed clusters and green leaves
The tree of heaven has a specific odor, of used gym socks or rancid peanuts. It used to be very popular in the 19th century, when it was planted along the streets, but as soon as the gardeners figured out about its unpleasant smell and its invasive properties, they started to consider it as an invasive plant, such as in the U.S.A. In China, the Ailanthus has been grown mostly for its medicinal properties. Its roots, bark and leaves are still used in traditional Chinese medicine, as an astringent, due to a chemical contained especially in the bark.

The tree of heaven is considered an invasive species in many parts of the world


Many of these trees are still growing in our country, maybe because of its ability of resprouting after being cut back to the ground. Some even began calling it "tree of hell". Bucharest (the capital of Romania) still has old streets and old houses downtown, where the trees of heaven are still growing. Most of the people appreciate the trees of heaven, because the old trees are huge and provide shade during the hot summer days. They are usually growing in front of houses, but also inside the yard, surrounded by asphalt or even choked in asphalt. Anywhere near a tree of heaven, small seedlings often pop out from the asphalt cracks, at the base of a house.

Tree of heaven seedling growing in a crack of the house wall

Seeing a tree of heaven reminds me of a simpler time

I'm happy to see these trees everyday when I go to work, on an old street in Bucharest, where my office is. It reminds me of my wonderful and careless childhood, at my grandpa's house. It's all gone now and huge blocks were built instead. I sometimes drive on that street, but the old trees of heaven are gone too - huge maples were planted along the new streets. But what saddens me the most is that the streets are empty, there is no life in them, like it used to be when I was a child. No children are playing under the trees anymore, as their grandparents did. The world is changing and it's not in a good way. Our grandchildren are now playing gardening games on the smart phone, but they almost don't know how a real tree looks like - because they are too busy with the computer or smart phone game. They don't have the curiosity to pick a leaf or a flower - that is, if it's not forbidden!