It’s No Angel: The Devilish Nature of Tree of Heaven

As I was walking the dog along our local Rails to Trails all-purpose trail last week, I noticed the sumac were starting to fruit out. (Note: For the purposes of this article, I am not distinguishing between Smooth Sumac, Staghorn Sumac or hybrids of the two.) With its bright red, cone-shaped fruit clusters it is hard to miss this time of year. As I paused for the dog to sniff at something, I looked a little closer, and right next to a sumac I spotted a branch of very similar – but not quite the same – leaves. Tree of Heaven. You tricky devil.

Tree of Heaven (Ailanthus altissima) is a highly invasive, rapidly growing deciduous tree, that can often take over in areas with disturbed soils, even thriving in largely unfavorable conditions. Like many non-native invasive species, these characteristics allow Tree of Heaven to crowd out native species and form monocultures.

However, with the pending arrival of another invasive species marching westward from the east coast, the Spotted Lanternfly, identifying and managing Tree of Heaven has become even more important. The Spotted Lanternfly feeds on hardwoods, fruit trees, grape vines and hops among other crops. But its preferred host is Tree of Heaven. More Tree of Heaven specimens in an area means more opportunity for the Spotted Lanternfly to spread. (For more info on Spotted Lanternfly identification, impacts, reporting and control, visit the Ohio Department of Agriculture’s Spotted Lanternfly page or Pest Alert PDF).

So how can you distinguish between sumac and tree of heaven? Fortunately, despite their similarities at first glance, there are multiple methods to tell them apart:

Scent: Tree of Heaven has a very pungent aroma when the leaf is crushed. Sumac, on the other hand, just has a typical vegetative smell.

Leaves/Leaflets: Both trees have pinnately compound leaves with multiple leaflets along a single stem. Sumac leaflets are serrated or toothed (jagged edges), while Tree of Heaven leaflets have smooth edges.

Seeds/Fruits: As mentioned previously, sumac trees have a reddish, cone shaped cluster of fuzzy fruits that can persist throughout the summer and fall months. Tree of Heaven, on the other hand, produces clusters of samaras (similar to the “helicopter” seeds of maple trees) that start green and turn an orange or brown color.

Size: While sumac trees top out at about 30 feet tall, they are usually shorter. Tree of Heaven, on the other hand, can grow to 80 feet tall. Be careful using size as a determining factor, though – don’t confuse Tree of Heaven with other large native trees with similar leaf structure, such as the Black Walnut.

So what should you have Tree of Heaven growing on your yard, or spot one in your neighborhood?

You can report the location of Tree of Heaven using the Great Lakes Early Detection Network app (free for download for both Apple and Android devices).

If it is on your property, there are multiple options for control, but don’t simply cut it down – it will sprout vigorously. See the Ohio Invasive Plant Council fact sheet on Tree of Heaven for control options.

And finally, if you notice Spotted Lanternfly on any Tree of Heaven, or anywhere else, report it to the Ohio Department of Agriculture!

Blog Author: Jared Bartley, Senior Program Manager

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