From China to UT and it only took 250 years.
The Tree of Heaven is originally native to China and has been grown both there and elsewhere as a host plant for the ailanthus silkmoth caterpillar used in the production of silk. (They spin cocoons and we carefully unwind the yards and yards and yards of raw silk.)
The Tree of Heaven was first imported into Europe in the 1740s perhaps along the legendary Silk Road and then into this country in 1784. It was one of the first trees brought west during a time when chinoiserie—a style of decorative ornamentation that features the extensive use of Chinese motifs—was dominating European arts. China was all the rage. The west was fascinated by all things from the East. Many homes had Chinese vases, prints, knickknacks.
Back then, Ailanthus was prized as a beautiful specimen for gardens and city streets. It grows rapidly with dense foliage and can reach heights of 80 feet.
Today, its popularity has faded but you can find them throughout our area. At this time of the year, look for the cascade of flattened, winged seeds that are a pale yellow that turns to a pinkish gold finally mellowing to a brown the color of your morning toast. There’s several of the Chinese trees now in seed growing on the riverbank along the Neyland Drive Greenway.
This reminds us yet once again of Rabindranath Tagore's wonderful quote: "Trees are the earth’s endless effort to speak to the listening heaven."
Enjoy the history that grows incognito in our valley.