Tree of Heaven

Tree of Heaven (Ailanthus altissima)
Tree of Heaven (Ailanthus altissima)

© William S. Justice. Courtesy of Smithsonian Institution

  • Scientific name: Ailanthus altissima
  • Kingdom: Plantae - Plants
  • Division: Magnoliophyta – Flowering plants
  • Class: Magnoliopsida - Dicotyledons
  • Family:Simaroubaceae – Quassia family
  • Genus: Ailanthus Desf – ailanthus
  • Life Cycle: Perennial


Tree of heaven is an exotic, rapidly growing, deciduous tree that emits an offensive odor. The leaves are compound, one to four feet long, and can have 11 to 25 alternating leaflets along the stem. Each leaflet will have at least one glandular tooth along the base. The leaves look similar to those of black walnut and sumac. The bark along the stems is typically smooth and pale gray and along the twigs is light chestnut brown. The tree is adioecious (male or female) and blooms in late spring creating small flowers ranging in color from green to orange. The fruit produced, called samaras, is flat, papery and twisted. Tree of heaven is propagated through the seeds or root sprouts. It is a fast growing tree that can reach 80 feet in height.(NPS, VA DCR)


Tree of heaven occurs in 42 states ranging from Maine south to Florida and west to California. It is most often seen in disturbed areas. It is distributed throughout the park and was found to be the most common exotic tree within the surveyed areas. (Hughes, NPS)

Common names:

Common names include Tree of heaven, China-sumac, Chinese tree of heaven, stinktree, and varnishtree (USDA ARS)

Other Facts:

Tree of heaven was introduced in America around 1748 by a Pennsylvania gardener and during the gold rush years in California by Chinese immigrants. It was being sold commercially by 1840. The wood is soft, weak and coarse-grained and can be harvested for timber. (NPS, USDA Plant Database)

Within Shenandoah National Park, tree of heaven is a targeted exotic plant because of its ability to rapidly grow and spread and also because it is known to produce a toxin in its leaves and bark that can inhibit the growth of other plants. It is important to the park to kill the invasive exotic species such as tree of heaven because invasive exotic species are known to be a significant threat to biodiversity. Only habitat loss is a greater threat. As an invasive exotic plant, the National Park Service attempts to remove tree of heaven from its lands. Removal is a difficult task requiring extreme diligence. Current techniques for removal include treatment with herbicides and manual removal of small trees. (Hughes, NPS, VA DCR)

References and Links:

Hughes, Jacob.2005. Draft ShenandoahNational Park Exotic Plant Surveys 1997-2004 Summary Report. Shenandoah National Park, Department of Natural and Cultural Resources, Luray, Virginia.

Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation (VA DCR). nd. Invasive Alien Plant Species of Virginia: Tree of Heaven Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation, Richmond, Virginia.

Further information can be found:

Integrated Taxonomic Information System (ITIS) Report U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Germplasm Resource Information Network database which is sponsored by the Agricultural Research Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture.

PLANTS National Database, a website supported by the Natural Resource Conservation Service.

Last updated: July 3, 2018

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Shenandoah National Park
3655 U.S. Highway 211 East

Luray, VA 22835


540 999-3500
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