By Luke Miller
“What is a weed? A plant whose virtues have never been discovered.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson
Given my druthers, I’d take a solitary oak over a grove of Ailanthus any day. Does that make me a tree snob? Hardly. It just means I find a lot more to like about one species instead of another. But one thing I’ve come to know is this: Nature makes no mistakes. If there’s an Ailanthus tree on this planet, it’s here for a reason.
Don’t recognize the name? Ailanthus altissima is also known as tree of heaven or ghetto palm. Made famous in the book, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, it is commonly found entwined in chainlink fencing (see photo) or interloping among perennials. It’s a last-resort tree when the conditions are so inhospitable as to preclude the ability of any other species to survive. That’s a fancy pants way of saying, “If you’ve got a gravel pit in your backyard, this may be your only alternative.”
Although not nearly as scorned as the imported Ailanthus, our native box elder (Acer negundo) doesn’t have much of a fan club either. Also known as ash-leaved maple, it’s kind of scrubby and about the only member of the maple family to regularly show up for fall parties without colorful attire. Like Ailanthus, box elder is ridiculously easy to grow.
You won’t find these misfits at any nursery I know of. Ailanthus is a weak-wooded tree with stinky foliage and a penchant for rooting itself everywhere you don’t want a tree. And, aside from a variegated form, box elder simply has too many superior relatives for anyone to bother with it.
One thing these two species offer is the opportunity to look for positives when they’re in short supply. Yes, Ailanthus is a weed, but it has a tropical look some find agreeable. No doubt box elder is the king of blasé most of the time, but those beige seed heads aren’t so bad to look at when the winter doldrums take hold. And if you get tired of box elder, it does make decent firewood. Now that’s looking hard for positives!
Although I will never be tempted to plant either one in my yard — not with so many cool, interesting, and less-troublesome species to choose from — I’m thankful for the lessons these two trees teach me about acceptance. It boils down to this: If you look hard enough, you can find good in everything.