by Erik Baard
As I walked past the Sunnyside Railyards yesterday I spotted a tree with a crown that each year is generously laden with green-gold pods. It’s rising up from beside the tracks, reaching eye level for strollers on the south side of the overpass. It occurred to me that while I’ve seen this kind of tree countless times throughout my life, I didn’t know its name.
When I focus on a tree these days, the first question I ask is its name, followed by “can I eat it?” For the latter obsession, I blame Wildman Steve Brill. The foraging instinct that he reawakened in me is useful not so much as a survival tool as a prime mover toward general ecological knowledge. Once I’ve asked that, the other questions come flooding: If I eat it, with what species am I now competing for food? If I can’t eat it, what chemicals are there to thwart me, and why? What species are able to eat it and what’s different about their physiology? Did those species co-evolve with the tree because they are superior vectors for spreading seeds?
Anyway, I did some digging and found some foresters who want us all to do some more digging…to uproot the species.
Oh, “Tree of Heaven!” Oh, “Ghetto Palm!” It’s amazing how a species can be viewed with such difference. We’ve already considered how the pigeon is “revered and reviled,” to use Andrew Blechman’s phrase, as a carrier of both the Holy Spirit and disease. Anthropologist Mary Douglas defined dirt, as opposed to soil, as “matter out of place.” The Ailanthus tree is indeed “out of place”; it’s an invasive species from eastern and southern Asia and northern Australasia. I also guess it doesn’t help that the male flowers of this tree smell like cat urine.
I couldn’t find a reason for its more flattering moniker, translated from the Ambonese in Indonesia. Folk medicine practitioners do make some intriguing claims for the tree though; Asian tradition holds that the bark is good for lowering heart rate, reducing muscle spasms, and, well, delaying a particular spasm that could cause your Fourth of July fireworks to shoot off a little too soon. Maybe it was an Ambonese wife who named the tree?
The inimitably New York name stems from the hardiness of this tree. Even when the city fails to green a community or lot, Ailanthus trees will find a way to grow. Park Slope has its London planes, while back alleys have the ubiquitous “poverty tree.”
That ability to thrive in urban wastelands spotlights another similarity between pigeons and ailanthus trees: despite being so opportunistic, they are usually benign to other, indigenous species because they specialize in unclaimed niches. There are places, however, where Ailanthus can be a destructive force. At forest fringes and clearings, or where new forests are being seeded, Ailanthus squeezes out slower-growing but essential native trees. One good case of this is Conference House Park on Staten Island. Volunteers are needed to yank young Ailanthus on Monday, from 1PM through 4PM. But be careful not to pluck similar-looking sumac, ash, black walnut, or pecan.
If you can help, RSVP by calling 718-390-8021 or emailing firstname.lastname@example.org as soon as possible.
And even as you’re thrashing the Ailanthus out of our city’s bucolic frontier in southern Staten Island, keep some gratitude in your heart for the shade it provides us when it seeds into the toughest hardscapes of the urban core.