Out of the Woods: Celebrating Trees in Public Gardens
The Third New York Botanical Garden Triennial

Tree-of-Heaven – Early Spring

Ailanthus altissima
Wellesley College Botanic Gardens, Wellesley, Massachusetts

I saw these branches in a flower arrangement last winter at our local art center and loved their smooth metallic texture and huge leaf scars. Their silvery bark and knobbly shape is really unusual, and because they are usually hidden by the copious summer foliage, I couldn't identify them. When I investigated further, I was so surprised that they were Tree of Heaven, which grows all along the sides of the highway that I take on my way to work at Wellesley College. I had a beautiful piece of veiny vellum that I had been saving for the right painting and decided that I had found my subject.

Ailanthus altissima, Tree of Heaven, is a fast growing, deciduous, exotic and invasive tree.
Mostly observed in cities and towns as a tree growing out of place, a tree of heaven is frequently seen growing out of the cracks or crevices of stone or cement, in the pavement beside buildings, close to building foundations and out of stone walls. In fact, it grows anywhere there is enough soil to support its germination and seedling growth. it is a native of China and was mistakenly introduced into France and England by a missionary who thought it was a Japanese Varnish Tree. From England, it was first introduced to the US as an exotic, fast growing, ornamental shade tree in Philadelphia PA in 1784. In Philadelphia it sparked the interest of amateur and professional horticulturalists as a desirable and unique shade and ornamental tree, and the seeds were sold and traded along the east coast. By 1820, the seeds were being distributed by the US Departure of Agriculture and by 1910, Ernest Wilson, famed plant explorer, who worked for Harvard University's Arnold Arboretum, noted tree of heaven as a " very old inhabitant of gardens..." ( Wilson, 1932 p.172).

At the Wellesley College Botanical Gardens, my specimen was growing at the base of a wall, at the side of the car park. Although it wasn't actually purposefully planted there, it remains an example of how the status of a tree can change from fame to notoriety. When I spoke to Ned Friedman, Director of the Arnold Arboretum, where two specimens of the tree can be found in the collection, he jokingly said that Ailanthus altissima is now often called Tree of Hell.

Read more about this artist’s work: 16th Annual International
  • © 2016 Sarah Roche
    Tree-of-Heaven – Early Spring
    Ailanthus altissima
    Watercolor on vellum
    13-3/4" x 13"