Nature blog: The tree of heaven

This post originally appeared on February 19, 2012 on Nature Writing.

During my nature writing class at Chatham University’s MFA program, I had to keep a weekly nature blog. Each of us picked a place and spent thirty minutes in that place each week, and then wrote a blog post about it. I’ve just bought a house and moved away from this place, so I thought reposting these entries would be a good way to celebrate the time I’ve spent there. I’ll tag each one “natureblog2012.”

Signs of spring continue to appear apace: a tiny moth fluttering around my monitor, a robin singing in the early morning, buds growing on an unidentified bush in my yard, a yellow jacket alighting on my car hood in Squirrel Hill a few days ago. Some kind of weed has also grown at the base of one of the dead Rose of Sharon plants, the kind of weed upper middle class suburban husbands use Scotts Turf Builder to destroy.

The weather app on my phone tells me it’s 47 degrees, but the wind makes it feel closer to 35. I am not wearing the right socks, and the cold air has no trouble finding my toes, getting under my skin. Nor does my knit Penguins hat pose any kind of barrier for its slicing blades. The trees of heaven sway in the wind, looking dangerously unstable.

Trees of heaven are supposed to have an odor, something like peanuts or cashews or a rotting version of one of the two, but I’ve never been able to detect it. I have not, however, tried to break off branches or cut any of the trees down, and have read that’s when the smell is strongest. The flowers produced by male trees also produce a strong odor, but it’s possible I have mostly female trees in my yard, since they can reproduce through their root systems as well as through seeds, and all my trees are close together.

The trees of heaven, Ailanthus altissima, were introduced to the United States from their native China in the late 18th century as ornamental pieces for gardens. They escaped. Because they can tolerate drought, incredibly high levels of pollution (including mercury, sulfur dioxide, coal tar, and cement dust), low levels of phosphorous (a necessary plant nutrient), and high levels of salinity (a plant killer), they thrive in almost any environment. I think a comparison to the cockroach might not be entirely off base.

Oh, and the trees emit a toxin that inhibits the growth of other plants. Heaven, indeed. The Japanese honeysuckle (another invasive species) and stinging nettle don’t seem to mind the toxin, because come spring I’m sure they’ll both dominate the yard, as they always do. In fact, honeysuckle binds the upper branches of all the trees of heaven, holding them close to the earth. Maybe that’s why I’ve never smelled the trees of heaven–it’s hard to smell anything but the honeysuckle. From what I’ve heard about the way trees of heaven smell, I’m grateful for that.

Chinese immigrants also brought the trees with them to California in the late 19th century, probably for its use as medication. Various parts of the tree were used to treat mental illness, baldness, boils, itches, abscesses, and to make one sleepy. The bark is still used to treat several afflictions, including dysentery. The tree has also been used to treat epilepsy and asthma.

I try again to smell a tree but all I can smell is cold wind. Winter air isn’t good for noses, in my opinion. It’s too dry. Maybe when a little bit of humidity comes back I’ll be able to pick up the smell of peanuts or cashews. For now I feel the bark, mostly smooth with small fissures, the sign of an aging tree. They only live about fifty years. But they grow so quickly, it hardly matters.


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