A Different Chinese Invasion

Personal Writings

Marble Falls     The Organizers’ Forum is heading to Taipei, Taiwan, this year for our annual international dialogue.  The delegation is forming now, so we’re open to adding anyone interested in joining the regulars who have already signed up.  Taiwan is of course in the news all the time.  There’s no denying that there is tension with mainland China.  From afar, there’s no way to tell how much of what we read and hear in the US is spinning and posturing propaganda on one side of the issue or another, but we’re confident we’ll get another, truer picture on the ground.

There is a different type of Chinese invasion on US and European soil that has been here since the mid and late 1700s, and is a real and present problem.  I’m talking about a tree, known popularly as the “tree of heaven” in China and scientifically as Ailanthus altissima.  There are other common names, including varnish tree, copal tree, stinking sumac, Chinese sumac, paradise tree,[4] or in Chinese as chouchun.   The tree is native to China and Taiwan, and was brought over to the US by Chinese immigrants more than 250 years ago.  It can get big, up to 50 feet.  It’s not ugly, but there’s a problem, because it’s invasive in our forests and pushes out other species of trees, birds, and insects.

The trees’ history is interesting:

In China, the tree …was mentioned in the oldest extant Chinese dictionary and listed in many Chinese medical texts for its purported curative ability. The roots, leaves, and bark are used in traditional Chinese medicine, primarily as an astringent. The tree has been grown extensively both in China and abroad as a host plant for the ailanthus silkmoth, a moth involved in silk production.[1] Ailanthus has become a part of Western culture, as well, with the tree serving as the central metaphor and subject matter of the best-selling American novel A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith.  The tree was first brought from China to Europe in the 1740s, and to the United States in 1784. It was one of the first trees brought to the West during a time when chinoiserie was dominating European arts, and was initially hailed as a beautiful garden specimen. However, enthusiasm soon waned after gardeners became familiar with its suckering habits and its foul odor. Despite this, it was used extensively as a street tree during much of the 19th century.

The smell is an issue for many and how it has earned the sobriquet of “stinking sumac,” but that’s not the worst of it.  Cutting the tree down doesn’t solve the problem for the forest, because the root system produces suckers, which will pop up later, reproducing the original tree numerous times.  I learned about the tree from a regional Arkansas agricultural and forest expert, who warned me about the ailanthus as well as the mimosa, which has similar proclivities.  It was all news to me.  My Eagle Scout merit badges in forestry are long-dated, but the leaves of the tree are distinctive, making it very easy to identify, and darned if I don’t’ see it everywhere now.  Driving off the main roads in the Arkansas Ozarks, we were shocked to find the ailanthus all along one road after another, both as fledgling ten-foot additions and others that shadowed some of the dirt and gravel roads at twenty-feet or more.  This is a Chinese invasion that is a very local problem.  It’s not winning, but it’s spreading rapidly.

Worse, if you want to cut it down, you can do so, but that won’t get rid of the tree, because a year or two later, it will spring up again.  For each sucker, you have to both cut and dig down to be able to pull out the root ball.  This is the time of year, June and July, to do this, as the tree begins to flower.  Most recommendations say you need to cut the tree now and administer herbicides, perhaps several times, before cutting it down.

Keep an eye out when you are near tree cover and forests.  This is not a project that you want, if you can avoid it.  It’s definitely something you want to nip in the bud.