Brooklyn's tree gets snubbed in pampered places, but is still hardy as ever

Posted: Friday, August 17, 2001

WESTPORT, Conn. (AP) -- The tree that grew in Brooklyn is the ailanthus, in case you forgot the name, as I often do, remembering only the novel's Brooklyn connection. It also swings in nomenclature from ''tree of heaven'' to ''stinkweed.''

Undeterred by urban pollution, ailanthus thrives in alleyways, vacant lots, railroad embankments, highway dividers, places where its tenacity and fast-growing talent make it useful. The tree likes posh sites, too, but gets mixed reviews by residents.

Here, on a Westport beach called Compo Cove, the ailanthus plays its heavenly role, some of them reaching 75 feet into the sky.

At a seaside house where I vacation in the summer, two tall, leafy ones emerging from apertures in the wooden deck provide welcome shade from noontime glare of sun on water.

Everyone who first sees them, except savvy botanists, asks what they are and quickly hears, of course, about Betty Smith's 1943 best seller, ''A Tree Grows in Brooklyn,'' and Elia Kazan's Oscar-rich movie that followed. Some are surprised by their looks. ''In my mind, I pictured a different tree when I read the book,'' a woman told me.

The smooth-barked ailanthus has large green leaves that are really made up of as many as 30 oval leaflets. Like fans, they have a graceful, soothing effect waving in the breeze. Clusters of small green flowers are followed by reddish brown fruits. But the male flowers are also malodorous, giving rise to the name ''stinkweed.'' High winds litter the ground with its tiny brittle branches, requiring unhappy cleanup jobs.

At the novel's close, the backyard ailanthus that accompanied the heroine's upbeat struggles has been cut down because tenants complained it got in the way of their wash. But new life was already showing on the stump.

Regeneration indeed is a main characteristic of the ailanthus. It is estimated one female ailanthus can produce 350,000 seeds in a year. Within three months, seedlings can crowd out other plants, a tendency that has gotten the breed frowned on as aggressively invasive in places where other trees are favored. The roots can damage sewers and foundations.

Nevertheless, the rapid growth and beautiful foliage of the ailanthus made it much admired in Europe where it was introduced in 1751 by a French Jesuit priest who brought a specimen from Nanking, China, to England. A Philadelphia gardener, William Hamilton, imported them to the United States in 1784. Later on, Chinese immigrants also brought ailanthus over for medicinal use and with it, the name ''tree of heaven'' from the reverence it received back home.

The tree was a landscaping boon where fast growth was needed. When young, it can grow as much as six feet in a single season. Thus it became an ideal plant for city planners seeking trees that defied soot, smoke and other pollutants. Salt spray and flooding menace vegetation on beaches but the ailanthus survives here, too.

The tree can be propagated by seeds or cuttings and does best in a light, moist soil. But it is seldom seen nowadays in places where trees regarded as more attractive will grow. Indeed, gardening manuals devote more space to how to get rid of it than how to help it grow.


EDITOR'S NOTE: George Bria retired from the AP in 1981 after 40 years that included coverage of World War II from Italy.

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