Tree of Heaven Identification, Look-a-Likes, and Biology

Tree of Heaven (Ailanthus altissima)

Female tree of heaven. Photo by Chuck Bargeron, University of Georgia, Bugwood.org

*Distinguishing characteristics separating tree of heaven from black walnut, staghorn sumac, and ash

SIZE AND COMPETITION

Can grow 60-100 feet tall (large, fast growing tree)
Clonally reproduces by root sprouts
Cut or damaged trees may spread prolifically by root sprouts (important for management considerations)
Intolerant to shade - often bunching along roadways (very similar to starghorn sumac)
Tolerant of poor to rich soils
Allelopathic - produces toxins that inhibits growth of nearby plants

Large tree of heaven. Beschreibung: Götterbaum (Ailanthus altissima ) Fotograf, Darkone, 5. September 2005. Wikipedia. https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0/legalcode

Tree of heaven clones. Photo by David J. Moorehead, Forestry Images

Over- and understory trees-of-heaven. Photo by John M. Randall, The Nature Conservancy

SHOOTS AND BARK

Young shoots start out green but age to a greenish cream or light brown
Young tree of heaven. Photo by Barbara Radisavljevic ©  
Maturing bark variable, but often resembles a cantaloupe - light silver or grey to brown

Available from http://www.bio.brandeis.edu/fieldbio/emmae24/Simaroubaceae/TreeofHeavenbark.jpg

Department of Natural Resource Ecology and Management, Iowa State University, Ames, Iowa. Available from https://www.extension.iastate.edu/forestry/iowa_trees/trees/tree_of_heaven.html

Old tree of heaven bark. Photo by Annemarie Smith, ODNR, Division of Forestry, Bugwood.org

LEAVES

Leaf is compound, 1 - 4 feet long (10 - 40 leaflets per leaf)
Alternate arrangement
Smooth leaflet margins*
Underside of leaflet base has glands*
1 or 2 glandular teeth at base of leaflets*
Short petiolule attaches leaflet to rachis

Tree of heaven leaflet margin and attachment. Photo by Dave Jackson, PennState

Tree of heaven leaflet underside showing smooth margin, gland, and glandular tooth. Photo by NYSIPM

TWIGS

Greenish, pink, or reddish to brown
Stout and hairless twigs but may look slightly fuzzy
V or heart shaped leaf scars*
Brown spongy pith*

Tree of heaven twigs. Photo by Steven J. Baskauf, Vanderbilt University

FRUIT

Clusters of fruit are samaras (winged and papery) each with one seed (black walnut and staghorn sumac do not have samaras but ash do)
Each fruit 1 to 2 inches long
One female tree may produce more than 300,000 seeds yearly 
Wind dispersed

Tree of heaven fruit (samaras). Photo by Gary Huntzinger, Rutgers NJAES Cooperative Extension

OTHER

May smell rancid; often described as like “cat urine”  or “burnt peanut butter” when foliage is crushed*
Dioecious
Leaves are usually retained and stay green later in the season as opposed to staghorn sumac and black walnut

QUICK ID SEPARATING TREE OF HEAVEN FROM BLACK WALNUT, STAGHORN SUMAC, AND ASH

Tree of heaven have smooth leaflet margins
Tree of heaven have glandular teeth
Tree of heaven have glands on underside of leaflet base

 

Last modified: Tuesday, April 9, 2019, 11:34 AM