Tree of Heaven
Invasive tree of heaven It can be identified by its fuzzy, reddish brown twigs © Cricketsblog on Foter/ CC BY

Stories in Indiana

Tree of Heaven

Though its name makes it sound divine, the invasive tree of heaven is no angel. Learn all about this devilish invader.

What is the Tree of Heaven?

Tree of heaven (Ailanthus altissima) is known by a number of names: stinking sumac, Chinese sumac, varnish tree and stink tree. No matter what you call it, it's an invasive species.

The tree of heaven is a rapidly growing deciduous tree with pale gray bark, light brown twigs and large pinnately compound leaves. It is native to China and was brought to the United States in the late 1700s as a horticultural specimen and shade tree. Its ease of establishment, rapid growth and absence of insect or disease problems made it popular when planning urban landscaping.

Its ability to produce an overly abundant amount of seeds, reproduction through roots and a chemical that can prevent or kill other plants near it has made it a species that have many states concerned. This invasive tree threatens to overwhelm our natural areas, agricultural fields and roadsides. 

Controlling & Managing Tree of Heaven

Why should we be concerned about the tree of heaven? It is a prolific seed producer and can thrive in even the most unfavorable conditions with little management. Its rapid growth also means it can crowd out nearby native plant species, and its aggressive root system can cause damage to pavement, sewers and building foundations.

Thankfully there are multiple ways to get rid of this invasive species. The most effective way to control tree of heaven is to pull seedlings by hand before the taproot develops. If the plant has matured, cutting alone will only help temporarily by reducing its ability to spread.

For larger trees and stands, there are a variety of chemical methods that can be found at the Maryland Department of Natural Resources web page.

Correct identification of tree of heaven is important. Several native trees and shrubs also have pinnately compound leaves such as sumac, ash and black walnut - all that could be confused with the tree-of-heaven. It can be distinguished from these native species by its fuzzy, reddish-brown twigs and clusters of light green seed pods.

It also has quite a stench; the tree and particularly its flowers. Tree of heaven releases a strong, offensive smell.

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The Nature Conservancy restores and manages land for native species, including invasive plant species removal—throughout Indiana. You can help by supporting our conservation efforts.