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In the Garden

In the Garden

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Tree-of-Heaven is anything but heavenly in your yard

Over the years Blue Ridge Prism has received numerous notes about the Tree-of-Heaven:

I learned that what I thought was Sumac invading my field was Tree-of-Heaven; I was horrified! The fact that I learned every time I had my field bush hogged was worsening the situation was really hard to handle! Gail

I tried girdling my Ailanthus and it just caused it to multiply. Kathryn

We have spent many hours in wildlife management areas killing Ailanthus to return the land to productive wildlife habitat. Roy

I learned what a tree of hell that species can be 20 years ago. Nick

The Tree-of-Heaven (Ailanthus altissima) is a serious ecological threat, destroying the value of land because it grows fast, out-competes desirable plants and poisons the soil with toxins exuded from its roots and fallen leaves. Its roots can penetrate sewer lines and foundations causing expensive problems for homeowners. It is also a preferred host of the spotted lanternfly, a non-native invasive insect which poses a serious threat to commercial vineyards and orchards.

Tree-of-Heaven can be identified by its bark (smooth and grey), distinctively stinky leaves and by the seed clusters on the female tree which are visible now. Its leaves turn yellow in the fall. A mature female tree is estimated to produce 300,000 to 350,000 wind-dispersed seeds. The winged fruits are easily dispersed by wind, water and machinery. Hundreds of seedlings can pop up in recently planted fields and hayfields, and in established fields and meadows, if a mature female tree-of-heaven grows nearby.

How Do I Control It?

You CANNOT just cut this tree to the ground and walk away. Its extensive root system will send up dozens of sprouts from its entire root system making your problem worse. These sprouts will grow into a dense stand of trees in no time. An herbicide is needed for effective control. There are several ways to control this tree with the easiest options for landowners outlined below:

Small Trees—Seedlings, Saplings and Resprouts

If you hand pull root sprouts, they just break off from their parent root and new ones grow back. Seedlings however can be hand-pulled if the soil is moist, but you must get the entire root. You can treat seedlings, root sprouts and saplings with a foliar herbicide spray summer through fall (while the leaves are green).

Medium Size Trees or Trees that Need to be Felled and Removed

Use the “cut-stump” method for medium-size plants and trees that need to be removed and cannot be left to die and fall in place. After cutting the tree down, immediately apply a concentrated, recommended herbicide to the outer 2 inches of the stump’s circumference and down the sides to the ground level. You can do cut stump now until early winter.

Large Trees or Trees that Can Die in Place

If you have large trees that can be allowed to die in place you can use the “hack and squirt” method by making cuts with a hatchet ½ inch deep at about waist height, leaving 2 inches between cuts. Avoid girdling the tree (making the cuts continuous around the entire tree), as this may activate the tree’s survival mechanism causing it to grow numerous root sprouts. Apply a concentrated, recommended herbicide into the cuts immediately after you make them. Do this now until early winter.

Blue Ridge PRISM has a fact sheet with more detail about this non-native invasive tree and information from the Virginia Department of Forestry on selecting the right herbicide. Join Blue Ridge PRISM’s next free event on Wednesday, Oct. 21 from 1-4 p.m. via Zoom. Mark Sutphin, Horticulture Extension Agent with the Virginia Cooperative Extension, will be speaking about the Spotted Lanternfly. To register, visit

Editor’s note: The In the Garden

column appears periodically and we’d love to include it more often. If you’re an expert in the natural world and interested in contributing, email

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