Tree of Heaven - The Nyoka Tree (plant profile)

 “If I told you that a flower bloomed in a dark room, would you trust it?” (Lamar, 2012)

“If I told you that a flower bloomed in a dark room, would you trust it?” (Lamar, 2012)


What do you call a force that no matter the circumstances continues to thrive, and in fact has come to need extreme 'edge' environments to flourish?

 

Some would call it incredible fortitude, strength of spirit, and extreme adaptability. Others call it a scourge and a danger. Such is the diverse reputation of the ‘Tree of Heaven” (Ailanthus altissima), also known as the “Tree of Hell”. For one tree to garner such an extreme reaction speaks to the unquestionable power of this resilient species. 

I learned of this tree while working towards my Permaculture Design Certificate, and was immediately drawn to it's incredible name, strength to heal the most unfriendly environments, and power to provoke a strong reaction. I see this tree for its incredible strength - the Tree of Heaven is the first to move in to disturbance zones, acting quickly to jumpstart the soil with it's dropped foliage and beginning the detoxification process in polluted sites. What could be a better tree to symbolize Nyoka? 
 

Tree of What?!

The Tree of Heaven/Hell is native to China where there is a long history of a love-hate relationship between the trees “good” side (use in traditional Chinese medicine, host for the ailanthus silk moss, and wood mass for firewood), and the trees “bad” side (the male plants flowers release a most offensive odor (lol) and the tree grows extremely rapidly and produce suckers, making them very hard to eradicate).

The Tree of Heaven was imported from China primarily for use in landscaping and gardening. Soon the tree fell out of favour due to the aforementioned odor and incredible suckering abilities. It was too late to prevent its roots from sinking and spreading into the fresh American soil, and thus began the quick invasion of the Tree of Heaven on the undefended disturbance zones in cities continent wide. Taking residence in cracking cement-lots and un-maintained sites, the tree found its niche in edge environments, and thrived.

 The distinctive fan-like leaves are odd or even-pinnately compound, organized in pairs on either side of the main stem.

The distinctive fan-like leaves are odd or even-pinnately compound, organized in pairs on either side of the main stem.

Go Find Your Heaven

To identify this tree start by scoping out landscapes where this tree will thrive; old parking lots, abandoned industrial buildings, and other such human-ravaged zones. In these ‘unnatural’ environments certain pioneer species thrive, and may be where we look for innovative nature-inspired landscaping solutions in the future. These trees are calcophiles, which means they eat lime- ideal for breaking down cement, of which a large component is lime. Take that sidewalks!
Ailanthus altissima is also one of the most pollution resistant trees, again perfect for starting the growth process in human-waste zones.  
Once you have wandered into your local abandoned factory look for a deciduous tree up to 27m tall. The distinctive fan-like leaves are odd or even-pinnately compound, organized in pairs on either side of the main stem. The bark is smooth and light grey, often turning into fissures as the tree ages. The flowers are small and appear at the end of new shoots. Male flowers produce 3-4 times more flowers and emit a strong foul odor (yes, men stink in many species).

Wield with great caution: (uses in permaculture)

Once you ride this tree’s stairway to heaven there’s no going back. Only use in extreme environments where no other tree could be expected to flourish.

  • Use to revegetate polluted and/or contaminated soil. Ailanthus altissima can tolerate drought-like conditions, a pH as low as 4.1, low phosphorus, and high salinity.

Pros: will grow where many other plants are unable to grow, provides a keystone species for other species to converge around. Grows rapidly with little maintenance.
Cons: the Tree of Heaven produces an allelopathic compound to prevent competition from other plants- by killing the baby fledgling seedlings. Brutal! The plants that survive in the Tree of Heaven's presence will be immediately selected for resilience. 

 

 Pain is the fuel that lights the flame of our enlightenment. 

Pain is the fuel that lights the flame of our enlightenment. 

Spiritual Connections 

With a name like ‘Tree of Heaven’, I was curious to see what spiritual practices surround such a tree. Trees play an important symbolical role in many if not all religious and mystical traditions, as well as important rituals of healing. The Tree of Life is a widespread symbol in Christianity, Judaism, Islam, a symbol of the quest for knowledge. The branches symbolize a connection to heaven, and the roots to the underworld, together forming the whole symbol of knowledge. 

Just as religion and spirituality in human culture, often borne out of extreme conditions, so to does the Tree of Heaven serve as a metaphor for the resiliency of spirit, the relentless thirst for life, and the incredible inventiveness of nature to flourish even in the most extreme environments.

 

And with that, I will leave you to ponder the classic words of Pink Floyd,
"So you think you can tell, heaven from hell?"

 

References:

Lamar, Kendrick. “Poetic Justice”. Good kid, m.A.A.d city. 2012.

Australian Weeds Committee. "Weed Identification – Tree-of-heaven". Weed Identification & Information. National Weeds Strategy. Retrieved 2010-02-07.

Keeler, Harriet L. (1900). "Simaroubàceae—Ailanthus family". Our Native Trees and How to Identify Them. New York: Charles Scriber's Sons. pp. 36–40.ISBN 0-87338-838-0. Retrieved 2010-02-07.

McClintock, Elizabeth. "Ailanthus altissima". The Jepson Manual: Higher Plants of California. University of California Press. Retrieved 2010-02-07.

Australian Weeds Committee. "Weed Identification – Tree-of-heaven". Weed Identification & Information. National Weeds Strategy. Retrieved 2010-02-07.

Smith, Betty. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. Harper Collins Publishers. May 2006 (first published 1947).