In 1948 Betty Smith published a moving and intelligent young adult novel about the perseverance of a young girl growing up in the poor Irish section of Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Her father was an alcoholic with little or spotty work and her mother was hardened to the harshness of poverty, childbirth and manual labor in New York City in the 1920s. The symbol that floats through the novel, and is viewed as a talisman in the eyes of the characters and as the book's theme, is a common tree you can see all over New York City, the Tree-of-Heaven.
While the tree's tenacity is symbolic of long-suffering and figures as a positive image in the story, the Tree-of-Heaven in real-time New York City is a pervasive, strong-rooted interloper to the native landscape, elbowing, rooting and edging out the hickory, sumac and ash trees that are native to the Eastern New York woodland shore.
A Gracious Import...
Just like Francie, the main character in the novel, the tree that she sees outside of her window in Brooklyn is a second (or third) generation immigrant. The Tree-of-Heaven was an export from China in the 1780s when Europe was crazy over "Chinoiserie", the name given to all manner of Chinese exports for design and home decor. The U. S. could not be left out of this fashion wave and enterprising Philadelphia gardener William Hamilton, began importing the trees to the United States as garden specimens. They ended up throughout much of the Northeast. In the 19th century, new Chinese immigrants coming to make a new life in the Western United States also brought the trees as symbols of good fortune, practical medicine and reminders of home.
Only later did people find out that these "specimens" could grow to 50 feet in less than 25 years and when pruned or cut, invasively and vigorously resprouts.
...but a Destructive Guest
In the middle of the 1800's, someone in New York City planning had an idea to plant the Tree-of-Heaven as a street lining tree all throughout New York. Soon residents began to experience the downside of living near such a fast-growing, "heavenly" planting.
The two most noticeable characteristics of this are the numerous "suckers" or shoots from its above ground root base that take over the surrounding areas, killing the root systems of the native trees. Why? The Tree-of-heaven produces chemical toxins that negate other plans from being established nearby. It's root system is so destructive and rampant that it has uprooted sidewalks and clogged sewers!
The second characteristic is that the tree has a terrible stench! Actually, when we went on the hunt for these trees in Brooklyn, we expected a horrible smell, similar to a Ginko tree. Not so. It's more like a burning, nutty odor, nothing you would want to withstand for long periods, but tolerable on a short walk. Imagine, a species left to flourish for over 100 years without anyone realizing what kind of a monster had been created.
Environmentalists in New York, and throughout the country where the Tree-of-Heaven has decimated the native populations, have taken action to contain its spread. Unfortunately herbacides have been used more than anything else in the process, due to the plant's growth ferocity when it is pruned or cut back.
Another way to limit its spread is to pull up the new shoots from damp soil, after a rain, for example, and this will also retard its growth. The Tree-of-Heaven can sow over 300,000 seeds yearly by wind pollination and in truth does not seem to be slowing down in its spread.
When you're in Brooklyn, look up (look down and all around) and you'll see this amazing tree that adapted itself to a new land and became a dominant landscape character and decide for yourself: Is this heaven or what?