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Tree-of-heaven, Ailanthus altissima, is a very common tree in large eastern cities. A native of Asia, Ailanthus was introduced as an ornamental and quickly escaped cultivation. It has a remarkable ability to grow successfully in cracks in sidewalks, abandoned lots, even from the gutters of old buildings.
Ailanthus is called tree-of-heaven not because it is heavenly, but because it is taller than many urban trees, seeming to reach for the skies. The Latin name, A. altissima, also refers to this – altissima means ‘tallest’. Of course, the tree is far from heavenly – it stinks, and has bad habits like root and stump sprouting. After a few years of popularity as an ornamental in the 19th century, it is today almost never planted. It is banned in many cities, though far too late.
Ailanthus is so abundant in cities today, and so aggressive at growing where no other tree can become established, that it is a good indicator of the ‘bad parts’ of town – the older, run-down parts of a city are where this tree finds its niche today. And that has led to its other name “ghetto palm”. I had known it by that name as a kid growing up in Baltimore, but had forgotten about it until recently, when I overheard someone talk about getting rid of a ghetto palm.
This is a vivid name for the tree, certainly more appropriate than tree-of-heaven. Young trees, with a tuft of huge leaves at the top, do bear some resemblance to palms. But the question is whether this term is offensive or racist? If so, we need to find another term that is equally evocative of its position in our cities. Comments (using the Facebook link) are welcome.