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Tree of Heaven

(Ailanthus altissima)

Photo of tree of heaven
Photo credit: Stephen L Solheim

Rapidly-growing tree that can reach 80’ or more. Tree of heaven has smooth stems, pale gray bark and light brown twigs. Leaves and male flowers have a strong odor of rancid peanuts.

Overview

Other names for this plant include:
  • Common names: China sumac, stinktree, ailanthus
  • Scientific names: A. glandulosa; Rhus cacodendron
Ecological threat:
  • Aggressive invader of urban areas, fields, roadsides, fencerows, woodland edges and forest openings. It may occur as seedlings in recently planted fields.
  • Prolific seed producer; once established can form an impenetrable thicket.
  • Allelopathic; plant produces chemicals that are toxic to other organisms, both plants and insects.
Overview map of tree of heaven classification in WI
Restricted (orange) counties

Classification in Wisconsin: Restricted

Species Assessment Groups (SAG) were assembled to recommend a legal classification for each species considered for NR 40. The recommendation for tree of heaven was based upon this literature review [PDF] developed by the department.

Identification

Leaves: Large, alternate, pinnately compound, 1-4’ long. Composed of 11-25 entire leaflets with the exception of 1 to several glandular teeth near the base.

Flowers: Small; yellow-green; 5-6 petals; borne in dense clusters near ends of upper branches in late spring; dioecious.

Fruits & seeds: Green turning pink to tan, papery, two-winged samaras in clusters. Develop in late summer to early fall and may remain on the tree through winter.

Roots: Aggressive; spreading rhizomes.

Similar species: Black walnut (Juglans nigra), butternut (Juglans cinerea), and some species of sumac (Rhus spp.). The leaf margins of the look-alikes have small teeth, with the exception of winged sumac, while those of the tree of heaven are smooth.

Control

Mechanical: Seedlings can be removed by hand. Trees may be cut at ground level with a saw, most effective when the tree has begun to flower. Re-sprouts may occur after treatment and successful control will require repeated cutting.

Chemical: Foliar spray with either glyphosate or triclopyr ester from June-September. Basal bark with triclopyr ester during the summer. Cut-stump treatment with triclopyr or glyphosate.

For more information on control techniques, visit the Tree-of-heaven factsheet [exit DNR] by University of Wisconsin-Extension.

Photos

View tree of heaven pictures in our photo gallery!

Resources

Sources for content:
  • Czarapata, Elizabeth; Invasive Plants of the Upper Midwest: an illustrated guide to their identification and control. University of Wisconsin Press. 2005. Pg. 87-88
Links for more information: