In Jerusalem, the Tree of Heaven Is Making Life Hell for Its Fellow Flora

An ironically-named tree in Israel's capital is waging war on the ecosystem, spreading its seed around the city and killing off local plants in the process.

Zafrir Rinat
Zafrir Rinat
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Zafrir Rinat
Zafrir Rinat

A tree species with a celestial name is wreaking corporal havoc on the plant life of Israel's capital city.

The Ailanthus altissima, or Tree of Heaven, was brought to Israel from East Asia and was planted around Jerusalem from 1960 to 1980. It spread fast, however, and today is one of the most vigorous – and vigilant – topiaries in the city. But as it rapidly spreads through the public areas of the city, it is posing a serious threat to the city's native flora, endangering the physical appearance of Jerusalem in the process.

Avinadav Begin, a landscaper (and the son of former Minister Benny Begin), noticed the increasing prominence of the tree throughout the city and has spent the past two years studying it.

The tree of heaven is highly adaptable and can sustain all sorts of conditions. It is a pro when it comes to scattering its seeds. During a brief tour of the city streets with Begin, one can see the tree on almost every street and in almost every garden. A line of trees is sprouting out of the sidewalk near Herzog Boulevard. Several large trees have already taken over some of the area at the front of the Jerusalem Theater.

The problem with the spreading of the tree of heaven is that it creates shade that prevents the growth of other plants. In addition, its leaves secrete a chemical substance that stops local plants located within a radius of several meters from sprouting. As a result, in every garden where the tree has taken over, the other plants are disappearing. Begin recently noted on his blog that the tree of heaven has changed the appearance of the neighborhood of Ein Kerem as much as the construction there.

“With such a pace of growth and spread, I estimate that within a decade or two, a very significant portion of the plants we know today in Jerusalem’s gardens and on its streets will simply disappear,” Begin wrote. “It’s not an ecological problem because this is urban land. Rather, it is a cultural problem of a change in the landscape of the vegetation that we have here.”

According to ecologist Dr. Jean-Marc Dufour-Dror, the tree of heaven is not a new threat. If its invasion is going to be restricted, he says, that should be done mainly in the open areas where it presents the main ecological threat. If a decision should be made to deal with the tree within the city too, many residents may oppose having the mature trees cut down.

Jerusalem municipality officials are aware of the problems posed by the tree of heaven and have begun cutting down some of the trees where they are most dense. But the ax-wielding is just a beginning, Begin says, and the city needs to be more vigilant.

“We need to map the main places where the trees are and deal with them by cutting them down or by poison. This is work that has to be done over years and will cost a lot of money.”

The tree of heaven is already known as an invasive and problematic species in open areas, where it has become an ecological threat to the local flora. According to the Israel Nature and Parks Authority’s definition, which was written by Dr. Dufour-Dror, the tree is a Level 4 ecological threat – the most dangerous level of threat posed by an invasive species.

Today, Begin will present the conclusions of his study in his presentation on landscaping and cultivation at the Mythographies Conference at the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design. As part of the conference, presenters will offer several options for using the tree to make products or artistic works should they be cut down.

Looks can be deceiving: The innocent-seeming Tree of Heaven is a nightmare for its fellow plants.Credit: Wikimedia

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