Sunday, August 3, 2014

Ding-Dong, the Tree of Heaven is dead!

Did you know that you can treat mental illness with a mixture made from the roots of a Tree of Heaven, douchi (fermented and salted soybean), and young boy's urine?  At least, that's what somebody thought in 723 AD in China.  I wonder how they came up with that recipe.

Tree of heaven with big sapling clump in front of it
Until recently, my backyard suffered the misfortune of being home to a Tree of Heaven.  The Tree of Heaven (Ailanthus altissima) is an aggressively invasive fast-growing weed tree native to China.  They're widespread across the world these days because, unfortunately, European and American gardeners planted them in order to invoke a sense of Asian-ness whenever Chinese culture was vogue.

Trees of Heaven grow extremely quickly, generally taking over recently-disturbed areas by choking out native plants.  The roots give off chemicals in the soil that prevent other plants from growing. It can grow in a range of climatic conditions, in all types of soil (including concrete rubble), and in the presence of all sorts of noxious pollutants.  In Southern California, grows very happily in full sunlight with no water.  If you cut it or disturb it, it responds by growing back even stronger.  Female Trees of Heaven reproduce copiously by seed in addition to suckers spawned from the mother tree's roots.  Male trees produce root suckers as well, and also give off a foul odor.  Female trees don't stink, but they do smell kind of peanuty.  If you've read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, the featured tree is a Tree of Heaven.

My backyard was being completely taken over by Tree of Heaven.  Saplings were sprouting up everywhere, and I couldn't keep them under control.  I'm still hoping to landscape my yard into a wonderland of droubt-tolerant shrubbery one day, but I could see that there was no point in even trying while the Tree of Heaven was there.  So, as much as I hate to cut down a healthy tree, I decided I had to try to eradicate it.

Free of the Tree of Heaven - for now...
How does one get rid of a Tree of Heaven, since it's so indestructible?  The US Forest Service provides a management field guide, which gave me some ideas, but I really wanted to find a local tree-cutting service that knew about Trees of Heaven specifically.  I talked to several tree services, and I was generally unimpressed by their knowledge of tree species.  I got quotes from three different services.  I ended up going with the one that was most expensive but with the proprietor who seemed to actually know something about the biology of Trees of Heaven.  In hindsight, I probably could have gone with the cheapest one, since they were all offering to do basically the same things.  However, the more expensive guy also struck me as much less sleazy than the cheap guy, who probably used unlicensed and uninsured laborers.  He also seemed like he would be really thorough, and he was.

The tree guy and his crew came out one morning, and within a few hours, the Tree of Heaven was gone completely.  They ground up the stump and all the saplings and left the yard very neat.  They did grind through one of the sprinkler pipes, but they were nice enough to tell me about it.  There are several old sprinkler systems in the backyard, none of which work, so it didn't matter.

The yard looks soooooo much better with the tree gone.  It's much cleaner and neater, and I know I made the right decision to have it removed.

Growing inside the garage
The tree guy warned me that the tree would no doubt come back, so I will have to keep on top of them and eradicate them before they get well established.  Consequently, all future saplings are on a strict Roundup diet until there are no more.  Unfortunately, there are incursions of this annoying plant in both of my nextdoor neighbors' yards, so unless those are kept under control, too, we'll continue having this problem.  In the weeks since the tree was cut, I've found a few scattered incursions, but Roundup kills them in a matter of hours.  I sort of hate to use the stuff, but in this case, I think it's warranted.  Yesterday, I found a sapling growing inside my garage out of a crack in the wall.

Maybe it's a good thing that nature can furnish such an indestructible plant species.  After we've screwed up the world due to climate change or nuclear holocaust or something, there will still be something nice and green and leafy to put things back into balance.  Won't that be a paradise!  The roaches and the Trees of Heaven, partying on after the apocalypse!

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