These entries are dedicated to chronicling the growth of Ailanthus altissima in cultural consciousness. Simply put, I’m collecting any reference to the tree in art, literature, movies, music, etc. and putting it on the web. I also may include ecology of the tree, but it’s not my principal focus.

Why am I doing this? People have in their contact with nature developed sets of ideas related to many different trees. Individual species of trees represent different things to us, and have wound up in our cultural memory. The willow tree can be “Old Man Willow”; we tie yellow ribbons around oak trees; President Andrew Jackson was nicknamed “Old Hickory”, children sing “here we go round the mulberry bush”, and so on.

In the past, the bulk of the world population lived in the countryside, and contact was with the agricultural and unmanaged landscape. My assumption is that as the majority of the world population has moved to the city or suburb, our principal contact with nature will be with whatever is common in cities. That will certainly include Ailanthus altissima.

Some have predicted the emergence of new urban ecosystems that will span the globe, meaning the plant assemblages found in any one northern city will be much the same as in any other. If a Detroiter moves to Germany or Northern China, the urban landscape will be very much the same. Ailanthus altissima is the urban tree, able to survive in the most desolate urban environments, and adaptable to a wide range of climate. It follows that as more and more people spend their lives in proximity to the tree, they will start to attach meaning to it, and that will slowly seep into our culture. I want to catalog that and share it here on this website.

Why the name “ghetto palm”? I am interested in the meaning people attach to the tree Ailanthus altissima. In Detroit, where I grew up, ghetto palm is a name give to Ailanthus. It flourishes all over the city, in neglected lots, abandoned homes, old industrial sites, everywhere. The more dilapidated the district, the more prevalent the tree. I don’t know who coined the term, and as I’ll show in later posts, I don’t think it’s unique to Detroit. It is to my mind a perfect example of people recognizing and reacting to their natural environment.

If you have links, images, or even personal stories about this tree, you are most welcome to contribute. I will post whatever I am given, with credit and a link.

Published by bingregory

Official organ of an American Muslim in Malaysian Borneo, featuring plants, pantuns and pictures from the Malay archipelago. Oversharing since 2002.

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  1. It is great to discover upon an effort to describe ailanthus in our cultural consciousness. I am an artist in Baltimore creating a sculpture and public action which incorporates the tree of heaven, called the tree of hell by a plant conservator i spoke to today. I am using the ghetto palm to represent the “outer” regions of BMORE city, the abandon lots and homes, the urban ruins, and the will of the plant to survive where no other would dare. In the action we are collecting the debris from the sidewalks in the city and it will become incorporated in the planting of the ailanthus. Let me know what you think, Ill send you a pdf about the project

  2. Hi. I’m in the midst of a few creative projects involving the Tree of Heaven (nicknamed the Cum Tree) here in Toronto, where its growth is truly prolific. Since pinpointing the tree as the source of the new-found tropical ambience to the typically northern deciduous, Oak Savannah city, I’ve been totally enamoured by our beautiful Ghetto Palm. I’ll send some pictures!

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