Historians are accustomed to constructing human history through surviving texts, architecture, and images but the living world can help us understand our past in its own unique way. A particularly good example of this is the Tree of Heaven, or Ailanthus altissima. Although now widely regarded as a weed, at one time it was a heralded exotic plant. Most will also recognize it as the focal point of the novel A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. It’s a tree anyone living in or near New York has seen, and indeed, a species now found in most parts of the United States. That said, its ubiquity belies an interesting story which offers its own unique perspective on the history of America.
If you’ve contemplated the ailanthus at all, you may have observed that it doesn’t quite fit with the landscape of the Northeast; that makes sense because it’s actually not an American species. Instead, the ailanthus is native to China and Taiwan, having made its way to Europe in the first half of the eighteenth century when English landscape design was particularly enamored by the gardens of the Far East. In America, it made landfall decades later in 1784, with Philadelphian William Hamilton credited as having brought the first specimen for his garden at his estate, The Woodlands.
It took another forty years to arrive in New York. In 1820, according to his son, Flushing horticulturalist William Prince, Jr. obtained a specimen from Archilbald Thompson, a London nurseryman. The only problem was that it arrived misidentified as common tanner’s sumac (Rhus coriaria). Prince’s catalogs document that the ailanthus remained undiscovered until 1823. As his son relates, that turned out to be a lucrative discovery since the popularity of the new offering, “Chinese Ailanthus,” facilitated a threefold increase in price. We can easily ascribe this good fortune to the prevailing interest in exotics, as well as the lingering fascination with garden styles of the Far East; however, it also provides an useful baseline for understanding how tastes would later change, and recognizing how societal influences contributed to the shift.
In the succeeding decades, the tree enjoyed widespread popularity as an exotic ornamental and was especially employed as an urban planting, perhaps because of its resilience and because the species boasts a natural tolerance for pollution. Prince, in his 1828 work A Short Treatise on Horticulture, described it as a “splendid tree” and one that “forms one of the most beautiful trees when at maturity.” On the other hand, other traits mitigate its appeal: the male tree emits an unfortunate odor when flowering while the plant’s hardiness is complemented by a toxin secreted to ward off nearby plants. Andrew Jackson Downing, regarded by many as the father of American landscape architecture, foreshadowed its fall from grace in 1852, seemingly at the height of the ailanthus’ popularity. In his magazine, The Horticulturalist, he cited the tree’s ability to reproduce at a near-constant pace, and other less attractive qualities, while extolling less noxious, native species to the American public.
Given its less desirable qualities, and the fact that it is a non-native plant Downing’s take makes sense. He is especially known for his commitment to constructing an explicitly America landscape design style where native flora take center stage. Yet more significant here is the language he employs in deriding the ailanthus which suggests a deeper, more insidious motivation. He begins by describing how the ailanthus “seduced by the oriental beauty of its foliage,” continuing in a similar vein:
We look upon it as an usurper , which has come over to this land of liberty, under the garb of utility to make foul the air, with its pestilent breath, and devour the soil with its intermeddling roots – a tree that has the fair outside and the treacherous heart of the Asiatics, and that has played us so many tricks that we find we have caught a Tartar which it requires something more than a Chinese wail to confine within its limits.
While he may have understandably been disappointed by the plant, the less than subtle racial undertones in his comments are unmistakable. Taken in the context of a changing America, where immigration was revealing what would become a long, sordid history of American sinophobia, Downing’s comments also become a larger reflection of American society. Perhaps most fascinating though is how a plant could become a conduit for Downing’s anti-Chinese feelings and a reminder of how aesthetics are shaped by the society they represent.