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Ailanthus altissima (Mill.) Swingle

Syn.: Ailanthus glandulosa Desf.
Tree-of-heaven, China sumac

Source: James A. Duke. 1983. Handbook of Energy Crops. unpublished.

  1. Uses
  2. Folk Medicine
  3. Chemistry
  4. Toxicity
  5. Description
  6. Germplasm
  7. Distribution
  8. Ecology
  9. Cultivation
  10. Harvesting
  11. Yields and Economics
  12. Energy
  13. Biotic Factors
  14. References


A tree that will grow in Brooklyn, Washington, and Peking, this "weed tree" can be a handsome "tropical-looking" ornamental with its compound leaves sometimes overtopped by reddish to yellowish clusters of winged fruits. It is used for erosion control, shade, and shelter where few other trees will thrive. Though little used, except in poorer countries, the wood is suitable for cabinetry, cellulose manufacture, furniture, lumber, pulp, and woodwork. It is difficult to split but easy to work and polish. The wood is locally used for charcoal and firewood. Leaves have been used as adulterants of belladonna and senna. Plant parts steeped in water and said to yield an insecticidal solution.

Folk Medicine

According to Hartwell (1967–1971), the tree is used in homeopathic "remedies" for cancer. Reported to be antiseptic, astringent, bactericidal, cardiac, cathartic, deobstruent, depressant, emetic, protisticidal, taenifuge, and vermifuge, tree-of-heaven is a folk remedy for asthma, cancer, diarrhea, dysentery, dysmenorrhea, dysuria, ejaculation (premature), epilepsy, eruption, fever, gonorrhea, hematochezia, leucorrhea, malaria, metrorrhagia, sores, spasms, spermatorrhea, stomachic, tumors of the breast (China), and wet dreams (Duke and Wain, 1981). From Manchuria to the Malay Peninsula, various parts of Ailanthus altissima are considered to be medicinal. The fruits are used for ophthalmic diseases. In Manchuria, the fruit is a remedy for dysentery. In China, it is bechic, emmenagogue, and used for hemorrhoids. In Korea, the root bark is used for cough, gastric and intestinal upsets. The vermifuge properties do not act on round worms or earthworms. Resin extracted from the roots and leaves is a revulsive or vesicant. The disagreeable odor of the plant may cause some people to feel sleepy. The leaves, bark of the trunk, and roots are put into a wash for parasitic ulcers, itch, and eruptions (Perry, 1980)


Per 100 g, the seed is reported to contain 27.5–27.6 g protein and 55.5–59.1 g fat (Duke and Atchley, 1983). The bark contains oleoresin, resin, some mucilage, ceryl alcohol, ailanthin, "quassiin," calcium oxalate crystals, and isoquercetin (quercitin 3-glycoside), tannin, phlobaphene, ceryl palmitate, saponin, quassin, and neoquassin (Perry, 1980; List and Horhammer, 1969–1979). Hager's Handbook (List and Horhammer (1969–1979) adds that the leaves contain 12% tannin, quercetin, as well as isoquercetin, and the alkaloid linuthine. Seeds contain quassiin.


Leaves are toxic to domestic animals (Perry, 1980). Gardeners who fell the tree may suffer rashes. Mitchell and Rook's observations are more violent than my own to sniffing the leaves, "The odour of the foliage is intensely disagreeable and can cause headache and nausea...rhinitis and conjunctivitis...The pollen can cause hay fever." (Mitchell and Rook, 1979).


Deciduous tree, usually dioecious, 6–10(-30) m tall; trunk 30(-100) cm or more in diameter. Bark light brown or gray, smoothish, thin, becoming rough with long fissures and dark ridges. Leaves alternate, pinnately compound 30–60 cm long, hairy when young, crushed foliage with disagreeable odor but suggestive of peanuts. Leaflets 13–41, short-stalked, broadly lanceolate, 7.5–13 cm long, 1.5–5 cm wide, acuminate, with 2–5 teeth near Insided base. Panicles large, 15–25 cm long; flowers many, 6 mm long, greenish or greenish-yellow, with 5-lobed calyx, 5 narrow petals. Male flowers with 10 stamens and disagreeable odor. Female flowers with 2–5 nearly separate pistils united at base. Samaras many, 1–5 from a flower, 3–5 cm long, 1 cm wide, with reddish or purplish-brown, flat, slightly twisted wing. Seed 1 in middle, 6 mm long, elliptical, flattened (Little, 1983).


Reported from the China-Japan Center of Diversity, tree-of-heaven, or cvs thereof, is reported to tolerate alkalinity, disease, drought, frost, heat, high pH, hydrogen fluoride, insects, low pH, pollution, poor soil, SO2 and waterlogging. (2n= 80)


Native to China and Taiwan, it is only fitting that missionaries should introduce the "tree-of-heaven" to Europe in 1751 and to the US in 1784. It is listed as a serious weed in Australia and is widely spread, weedlike, in all temperate climates.


Estimated to range from Subtropical Dry to Wet through Cool Temperate Dry to Wet Forest Life Zones, tree-of-heaven is estimated to tolerate annual precipitation of 3 to 25 dm (tolerating a dry season up to 8 months), annual temperature of 10° to 20°C, and pH of 5.5 to 8.0. Growing on the smallest of city plots and rubbish heaps, this species obviously can tolerate a wide array of soils, from acid to alkaline, sand to light clay, well-drained to swampy, poor to rich. It is said to do poorly on chalky soils or compact clay (Little, 1983).


A prolific seeder, spreading also by root suckers and coppicing readily, we might better study how to get rid of than to cultivate this "weed tree." Planting root cuttings of male trees would eliminate the seeding problem, however, augmenting the bad odor in the process. Root suckers can be problematic in fields as well as sidewalks and buildings. Seed stratified over winter should be spring sown, covered with ca 12–15 mm soil, one kg seed yielding 6,500 usable plants (Ag- Handbook 450).


Perhaps the branches should be lopped for fuel before the seeds mature, stored until winter to dry. One hundred kg fruits will yield 30–90 kg seed. Seeds should be stored in sealed containers, with low moisture content, at ca 1–3°C. Trees coppice readily.

Yields and Economics

I find no yield data, but suspect that it yields as well as Paulownia in our Maryland climate. NAS (1980a) reports that it can grow 3–4 m in height during a 5-month growing season. I would estimate that 20 m3/ha is possible for this light wood.


Like most of our herbaceous and woody weeds, this too has been suggested as an energy candidate. The yellow wood, moderately hard and heavy is used for charcoal and firewood in many countries. I have heard no reports of toxicity from the smoke.

Biotic Factors

Agriculture Handbook 165 lists the following as affecting this species: Armillaria mellea (mushroom root rot), Botryodiplodia ailanthi var. chromogena, Camarosporium berkeleyanum, Cercospora glandulosa (leaf spot), Colletotrichum tertium, Coniothyrium insitivum, Cytospora ailanthi, Daedalea unicolor (butt rot), Diaporthe medusaea, Dimerosporium robiniae (black mildew), ?Diplodia ailanthi (twig blight), D. natalensis (twig blight), Eutypella glandulosa, E. microcarpa, Fusarium lateritium (twig blight), Gloeosporium ailanthi (leaf spot), Guignardia ailanthi, and Haplosporella ailanthi. Tent caterpillars are occasionally a problem in the US, completely defoliating, but rarely, if ever, killing the trees.


Complete list of references for Duke, Handbook of Energy Crops
Last update December 19, 1997