Is an Ailanthus a “Stinktree” or a “Tree-of-Heaven”?
It is both!
The weed-tree Ailanthus altissima has two common names, as a matter of fact: tree-of-heaven and stink tree.
Now I must confess that the leaves of the tree-of-heaven resemble those of the sumac. This past summer you might have seen the pinnate leaves of this tree and immediately dismissed it as just another sumac. But it is not. Indeed, the colorful, inedible fruits of the ailanthus are probably what gave the tree its name in the first place. In June, when you drive down some of the major highways in New York and New Jersey, you can see a tree-of-heaven sporting its yellow-green (or in late summer, red-brown) samaras, which after they drop off the boughs, will enable little tree-of-heaven shoots to appear next spring.
But what about that other common name?
Well, the tree produces both male and female flowers. And guess what? The male flowers have a disagreeable odor—thus the name “stinktree”!
So why write about it?
Now I suppose that a tree which has two such disparate common names, as this one does, simply caught my fancy, not to mention the dichotomy between the beauty of the tree as a whole and the bad odor of its male flowers.
There must be a lesson for all of us in this tree, and what might that be?
Tree-of-heaven is one of very few trees which can flourish in spite of the polluted, sometimes downright unhealthy, air of our big cities, like Boston and New York City. It is hearty and grows like a weed; thus the name “weed-tree” is used to describe it. Yet an infusion of its leaves was used medicinally by the Chinese (ailanthus was originally a Chinese native) to combat diarrhea and other intestinal maladies. And some of the compounds derived from the trunk bark or the root bark have been shown to be very effective against malaria.
Perhaps, then, we could call this weed-tree a tree of contradictions. Remember: despite the visual beauty of its fruit, the tree-of-heaven produces flowers that do not smell good. And the ailanthus can easily displace other plants and trees because it flourishes in places where these other trees just do not do well. And as we have mentioned above, compounds derived from the tree can be used for various medicinal purposes.
We thus see a tree that has both favorable and unpleasant qualities. Why, isn’t that also true of our friends and family as well? It is thus up to us to nurture a genuine empathy for others, regardless of any less-than-endearing qualities they might possess.
And that is precisely the mussar schmooze that we can take from our discussion of this most interesting weed-tree. The ailanthus. The tree-of-heaven. The stink tree.
Questions or comments? You may send these to me at email@example.com.