[Tweeters] The Tree of Heaven and Hell

Jeff Gibson gibsondesign at msn.com
Thu Aug 10 19:55:03 PDT 2017

This year I've had the opportunity to experience the transitions of a remarkable tree here in Port Townsend: the 'Tree of Heaven' (Ailanthus altissima). Native to China, it was maybe introduced here by the early Chinese community here (there was one ). However it got here it's here and doing well.

I lost my little field note about this, but it was either in late April or early May, when the many suckering young Ailanthus trees were just leafing out - a tuft of emerging leaves , yellow at the base blending into reddish orange at the tips. Seeing some movement on the slope under these trees clued me into the first Western Tanager I'd seen this year (a male), and soon more movement revealed several females.

In my experience a male Western Tanager typically stands out like a flame on a dark Douglas-fir or other green native trees. However in the budding Ailanthus it in blended in just right - I never would have spotted it but for it's movement. I had the notion that the Tanagers were emerging from the yellow and reddish Ailanthus buds, kind of like that folk story about how the arctic breeding european Barnacle Geese were thought by the yokels down south to have transmogrified from their local Goose-necked Mussels - a pretty good story I think, but like my Ailanthus/Tanager story ,ruined by science.

That's progress, but we can still tell stories.

These days the Ailanthus has transformed into lush deep green foliage with exuberant deep green pinnate leaves. The female trees have produce big clusters of bright red seed head's that come off as flowers from a distance. Beautiful.

I don't know where the "Tree of Heaven" label originally came in but in the esthetics department the tree qualifies in my view. You can view them now on the bluff a block or two East of the ferry terminal between Water (the tourist street) and uphill.

"Tree of Heaven" ? Horticulturists , gardeners, ecologists, native plant managers may view this plant as the "Tree of Hell".It has invasive habits, spreading by seed, and even worse, suckering . It's a tough customer - I'd known about it for years but the first ones I saw were growing out of cracks between concrete alley's and buildings in downtown Portland - a real survivor. In the Mimbres valley New Mexico its a major weed in roadside ditches.The local story is that it was introduced by practical thinking Chinese railroad worker/slaves as a source of firewood.

In my younger years as a naturalist I inherited a bias against "non native species", and as a kid even tried to shoot a "bad guy" Starling with a CO 2 powered pellet gun. I hit the bird, but I guess my gun was low on gas, because the bird lived.

Life is sort of a conundrum. I definitely don't condone introducing "Invasive Species" , but mostly enabled by us Human Beans they are here. Sometimes controls work - like the yanking of Scots Broom at Fort Worden here in PT- it has made a big difference in that native habitat of native dune plants.

Now I'm getting older (like everyone) and have mellowed out some. Now I find Starlings, House Sparrows, Rock Pigeons , and European collared Doves interesting and beautiful in their own ways. Even the "Tree of Hell".

Jeff Gibson

just sayin'

Port Townsend Wa

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