Friday, September 8, 2017

Earth Etude for Elul 18 - Searching for the Tree of Heaven

by Rachel Aronson

Despite its nickname, “the tree of heaven,” the ailanthus is not universally beloved. It is not planted in garden beds, on streets, or in parks. There are 22 types of permitted street trees in New York City, where I live, and the Tree of Heaven is not one of them.

The Tree of Heaven is most famous for being the titular Tree that grows in Brooklyn:

“There's a tree that grows in Brooklyn. Some people call it the Tree of Heaven. No matter where its seed falls, it makes a tree which struggles to reach the sky. It grows in boarded-up lots and out of neglected rubbish heaps… It would be considered beautiful except that there are too many of it.” (Betty Smith, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn)

As a fan of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and an amateur urban naturalist, I resolved to find the tree when I moved to Brooklyn. My search was, at first, entirely unsuccessful. The majestic trees lining brownstone streets were honey locust, oak, but never ailanthus. Bike rides down tree- lined corridors found London planes and tulip trees, but never ailanthus.

A bit of Googling shed some light on my problem; the ailanthus is considered a weed tree. Quickly growing, with pods that produce millions of seeds, it’s the tree equivalent of a dandelion.

So I started looking for the ailanthus in places where trees aren’t planted. And found them: in the middle of the subway tracks, growing out of abandoned lots, on uncultivated roadsides. Where no money had entered to beautify or to plant, there was the ailanthus.

A friend of mine recently relayed a Midrash about Moshe and the burning bush. To find the leader of the Jewish people, G-d set up a fire in a bush that was not consumed. Shepherds came and went, their minds on other things, and overlooked it. Moshe was the first to see the bush for what it was - a miracle. And for this observation and appreciation, he was chosen as a great leader.

If left unchecked, the ailanus has been known to wreck havock. It’s an invasive species; its roots overtake sewer systems, its branches intercept telephone lines. I am not advocating for an end to thoughtful land management practices. Simply an appreciation of what is around us, a reminder to notice. To notice not just the beauty that’s obvious before us, but to pause and see the beauty that we’ve been overlooking - that which might be considered a weed.

What will you notice today?

Rachel Aronson is the Sustainability and Community Engagement Associate at Hazon. You can reach her at

1 comment:

  1. How lovely to read about the "tree of heaven". I was barely aware of this tree until I read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn a couple of years ago. then I started paying attention to it.

    I found it grows wild a lot in various urban and suburban areas of northeast Massachusetts, and that I have been getting it confused with staghorn sumac. A wild foods teacher told those of on a walk that you recognize it by the "Cheerios" smell of the crushed foliage.

    I adore weeds! I love all those ignored plants so much, and feel sorry for people that are unable to see the beauty of the vast array of weeds/plants that call out to me when I am walking, out and about, or in my garden.


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