I see it every time I drive down Mountain Road to Hill-Stead. It’s the Tree of Heaven, officially known as Ailanthus altissima. Originating in China, it is mentioned in ancient dictionaries and medical texts and was used there to cure everything from mental illness to baldness. Today it’s still used in traditional Chinese medicine, principally as an astringent. Like lots of invasive plants and animals, Ailanthus grows fast and soon dominates the landscape. In an extremely un-heavenly move, it sends chemicals into the ground to discourage growth around it so it can suck up all the surrounding resources and stretch unimpeded toward the sun. You can find Ailanthus anywhere the land has been disturbed and some say it has a real stink to it, like the female Ginko tree.
Our Tree of Heaven is located near the spot where a wooly mammoth was pulled from a bog by Hill-Stead farm workers in 1902. For a time it was the “must see” for scientists from all over, as it was then the first completely intact skeleton ever found. One of the biggest archeological finds of its time, it even helped popularize the word “mammoth”. The Tree of Heaven couldn’t have been there in 1902 since at that time the whole area was part of the Pope farm. But when Theodate died her will dictated that Hill-Stead should become a museum. There just wasn’t enough money from her estate (the bulk of which went to the Avon Old Farms School, which she founded and for which she designed the buildings) to create a museum. So they sold 100 acres of land, which included the Wooly Mammoth bog and the place where the Tree of Heaven sits now. But I still think of it as “our” land. I have no doubt that if Theodate had known the value open spaces would come to have, she would have written her will differently. Now the area is dotted with homes (some brand new as the area continues to grow) and a tennis club. Having been bulldozed by developers I think the property qualifies as “disturbed”, so no one should be surprised that this behemoth of a tree has grown there in such a short time. Many invasive plants and wildflowers are found in such places. An Ailanthus can reach 49 ft within 25 years or so.
I think the tree is pretty. It has large compound leaves at least a foot long, with between 10 and 41 leaflets each. At this time of year it flowers,and the cultivar we happen to have becomes flame-colored . You can see it from from a long way off. Tree of Heaven has determination, reproducing not only by seed, but also by throwing up “suckers” all around it through the earth. It can withstand dirt, dust, pollution of every kind and still it pulls itself up toward the sun. Tree of Heaven was the inspiration for the book “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” by Betty Smith, and it is easy to see why.
“A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” tells the story of Francie Nolan, who lives in poverty in Brooklyn, New York. Like so many immigrants at the turn of the last century, the family struggles to attain a piece of the American dream. Francie’s mother feels the key to this is a good education and she is determined her children will have one. A Tree of Heaven grows in a vacant lot near their apartment and symbolizes the determination of the family to rise above their circumstances. It is a wonderful book-a real touchstone for millions of people. It was adapted to a movie and a stage play, no doubt because the story is a familiar one to Americans whose backgrounds include many a Francie Nolan.
What a contrast to Theodate Pope, daughter of one of the richest families in America! She came from Cleveland to Farmington to attend one of the most elite schools in the country,- a far cry from Francie Nolan, who yearned for any education at all, to save her from a lifetime of scrubbing floors. And yet in her own way, Theodate was swimming against the courant, too. Unlike her peers, she wanted a farm and a career, an unseemly, unusual aspiration for a young girl with means. Her mother couldn’t understand it and they were at odds. Theodate and Francie were not dissimilar in their yearning for that which was just nearly out of reach to them. Their goals were close enough to tantalize, yet odd enough to be hard to realize within their specific social castes.
What would life be without the thirst for something more? I bet most people driving down Mountain Road in Farmington don’t notice our tree even when it blooms. But I am just as certain that they each have a personal Tree of Heaven within them.