The old adage that you can’t judge a book by its cover seems incredibly appropriate when discussing Ailanthus altissima – a tree native to China and first introduced to the United States some 240 years ago.
To the untrained eye, the tree is pure beauty with delicate green leaves in the shape of a quill, bark with light gray hues, and red and yellow seeds which when flowing in a gentle breeze resemble the setting sun. The tree is often referred to as the “tree of heaven” in its native homeland due to its sheer angelic beauty.
However, Ailanthus altissima’s more popular (though offensive) name is “tree of hell” – and with good reason.
There are many reasons why this tree has garnered such a bad reputation in the tree community.
The tree grows three feet each year and uses underground “suckers” to clone itself over and over again, which emit toxins into the soil to destroy native plant species. As if that wasn’t invasive enough, the tree also produces hundreds of thousands of seeds each year – guaranteeing environmental dominance wherever it stands.
Worst of all, it seems to have no natural predators to help combat its invasive conquest and has been known to provide a sanctuary to highly destructive insects such as the spotted lanternfly. That is until now.
Farmers and land managers have turned to powerful herbicides and even removal to help control the Ailanthus population, but their vast underground framework combined with an unending stream of seedlings make it almost impossible to fully eradicate.
But scientists have discovered that a fungus native to Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Ohio called Verticillium nonalfalfae, actually kills the tree.
“It doesn’t just kill the single tree, it kills the root system, and it kills the neighboring [Ailanthus] trees, and you could really see these disease pockets spread out,” says Rachel Brooks, a Ph.D. student formerly at Virginia Tech’s School of Plant and Environmental Science.
While promising, scientists and environmentalists need to first make sure the fungus will not damage other plants, wildlife, and crops in the surrounding areas of treatment, which could take up to three years before conclusive results are known. But it’s a promising first step in controlling this invasive, though beautiful, species of tree.
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