The Tree that Grows (Too Well) in Brooklyn

The Tree of Heaven that grows (all too well) in Brooklyn.

The world can be a tough, cruel place, but life always finds a way; That’s the core theme of Betty Smith’s semi-autobiographical novel, “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.” Set in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, New York City, the novel follows the life of an aspirational young girl as her family struggles through poverty. The tree in the novel, known as the “Tree of Heaven,” serves as the main metaphor. Able to grow in the poorest neighborhoods through concrete and arid soil, the tree’s chutzpah mirrors that of the young girl’s.

In real life, the Tree of Heaven (Ailanthus altissima) is ten times as tenacious. A. altissima is native to China and Taiwan, but it was imported to America in the late 1700s and used as a decorative street tree throughout the 19th century. This exotic-looking tree tolerates poor soil well and can grow quickly to reach heights as tall as 50 feet. 

Although A. altissima was initially a pleasing addition to US cityscapes, westerners eventually found that the “Tree of Heaven” could at time behave more like a “Tree of Hell.” A. Altissima constantly produces shoots called “suckers” at its base from which new trees can grow. Cutting the tree stimulates sucker production, which means tree is almost impossible to remove. The seeds are dispersed by wind and have no qualms about germinating in cracks in concrete. Its aggressive roots can eventually damage sidewalks, foundations and sewer systems. On top of this, A. altissima smells, earning it the additional name, “The Stink Tree.” In fact, its Chinese name “chouchun” literally means “Stinking Spring.” Love it or hate it, A. altissima is a born survivor and, in the right story, an inspiring metaphor.

Brian Rutter, PhD, is the cofounder of Thing in a Pot Productions and a postdoctoral researcher in plant biology at Indiana University. Subscribe to our newsletter to receive our “Things About Things – Odd Facts About Plants” and video production tips in your inbox every month!

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