A fast growing tree that can reach 80′ – 100′ tall, often found at woodland edges or openings and urban alleyways where it grows to get sun – it is shade intolerant. Bark is pale gray/green and smooth when younger, resembling cantaloupe skin, turning browner with age. Very large 1′ – 4′ compound leaves; each of the 10 to 40 leaflets is lance shaped, smooth (not serrated or saw toothed), and with one or two protuding bumps (glandular teeth) at the base end of the leaflet.
Leaf attachment to stem is large and when pulled off shows a large heart shape leaf scar with bud above it. Leaves and twigs, when crushed, produce a characteristic rancid peanut butter odor.
Look-alikes: Other plants have similar large compound leaves, such as staghorn sumac and walnut and hickory trees. However the leaflet edges of those trees are serrated, while Tree of Heaven’s are smooth. Also nut trees have shaggy bark while Tree of Heaven’s is smooth and cantaloupe looking.
Seeds are prolific on female trees, hanging in clusters of 1-2″ wind-driven samaras.
Tree of Heaven spreads by seed dispersal (1-2″ samaras) and by sending up root sprouts which can be as much as 50′ from the parent tree. Groves form rapidly and crowd and shade out native species. Roots are also allelopathic, producing chemicals that limit growth of other species.
Trees are either male or female. Large groves of clones can establish from the root sprouts of a single parent tree.
Tree of heaven is the preferred host species of the Spotted lanternfly, a new nonnative invasive pest that is not in Massachusetts yet, but is coming. See link to a June 2020 Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources webinar, below. Unfortunately the Spotted lanternfly also likes many other tree and plant species as well. If we see it we must report it immediately, see link below.
Young seedlings can easily be hand pulled with their roots when soil is damp; however, a young root sucker (that looks just like a young seedling) is attached to a larger root system that must also be pulled up if possible. Continual followup pulling and vigilence is required.
Large trees can be cut down, however this will encourage stump sprouts and root suckers, even if cut stem is treated chemically by a professional. The preferred method of chemical treatment appears to be “hack and squirt” in which a few cuts are made into and around the trunk and herbicide applied; this is done in fall when sap is running back into the roots.
Links and Resources
For more information on how to identify and control Tree of Heaven, please refer to the resources below:
- Ecological Landscaping Alliance for identification and control
- Mass Audubon for identification
- PennState Extension for identification and control
- Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources webinar on the Spotted Lanternfly
- How to report sighting of Spotted Lanternfly