Autumn watch

Alianthus altissima, known as the “tree of heaven” or Chinese sumac, grows everywhere in our neighborhood. Alianthus is an invasive species that grows incredibly quickly, and can reach twenty or more feet in height in two years. It will thrive in places where no other tree will grow: it will spring up in the narrow bands of rank weeds that grow between dreary parking lots; it will sprout along chain-link fences; it thrives along the trash-strewn edges of busy highways. I remember reading one field guide to trees which described alianthus as a “coarse, malodorous tree,” but that’s not an entirely fair description. It is fair to say that alianthus tends to grow in coarse, malodorous places — sometimes a stray alianthus will be the one oasis of greenery in some blasted post-industrial wasteland.

On my walk today, I passed the alianthus altissima that has been growing up near the pedestrian overpass that crosses Route 18 in downtown New Bedford, growing right next to and choking out a fir tree. Yesterday, the alianthus was still covered with green leaves; but today, suddenly it has no leaves left. The leaves never turned red or orange or yellow or even brown, they just fell off. A mature alianthus altissima can become a beautiful tree, with masses of creamy white flowers in the spring, and in the winter with its many branches reaching up towards the sky. But it adds nothing whatsoever to the autumn landscape.

4 thoughts on “Autumn watch

  1. ms. m

    after 10 years here, I finally see the “subtle” change of colors here in the fall. But of course, I now am thinking of, and missing that New England autumn explosion.

  2. Dan

    ms. m — I used to love the bright red sweet gum trees along the streets of Berkeley, and would go several blocks out of my way to see them. Funny thing is that now I’m back in New England, I miss seeing the hillsides turn green in late November-December, as the rainy season starts….

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