June 1, 2012

Beware of Volunteers

It's the first of the month and time to show you a gardening oops, or GOOPs, as Joene calls them.  You can see the mistakes others have made in their gardens on her blog.

My mistake unfolded over a couple seasons until I finally realized I had an oops.

In back of our property is an open untended meadow and hillside.  It was simply bare dirt when we moved in several years ago.  The builder had scraped it, run over it, graded it a little bit and then left.  Weeds moved in to cover the bare earth.

For seven seasons now I have been reforesting the area, planting as many young native maple, oak, sassafras, sweetgum and black gum saplings as I could find at half price, and rescuing any tree volunteers that showed up in the weeds.

I have rescued silver maple volunteers, I have found red maple seedlings, I let the sumac suckers grow, and occasionally an oak sapling has volunteered. I nurture them all, keeping rabbits and deer away, watering in dry times, and making sure they have a chance to grow.

I was quite pleased to see a couple of little trees show up that had compound leaves.  Ash maybe?  Hickories or even a walnut tree?  Hmmm.

The first tip off for I.D. should have been The Rule of Disturbed Earth.  That is, only very aggressive plants will grow easily in your untended wilderness after the earth has been opened.

The second tip off was the Rule of Rapid Growth.  That is, trees that grow like weeds are weeds.

I took a branch cutting and checked the internet.  What were these compound-leaved, thriving, volunteer trees that I had been nurturing and watering and tending?

Oh. They were Ailanthus altissima.  Tree of Heaven.  An invasive, alleopathic, suckering non-native from China that forms great colonies and disperses gazillions of samara seedpods every year.  Fast growing and weak wooded, they break apart.  Male trees smell awful when the leaves are crushed or the bark scratched.  Ugh.  They grow to be huge trees.

There is a big stand of them two streets over, and they are horrid trees, choking out everything else and being messy.  As I look carefully in the weeds of the unmown meadow, I see several of these little Ailanthus saplings getting underway.

Unlike the multiflora rose, which I will never be able to control, or the poison ivy or bittersweet vines which will outlive their hosts, I think I can rid the meadow of these potentially large trees.  Once they sprout they are easy to see and I'll cut each down.

I have to laugh at my naivete --- tending these fast growers that just showed up and thinking how they would make a wonderful new forest in just a few seasons.  Oops. . . .




One distinction in the leaves between tree of heaven and others -- ailanthus has smooth edged leaves, while hickory and ash have serrated edges.  Otherwise, the compound leaves look similar.

29 comments:

  1. We used to have these growing in various places at our old house. I wasn't much of a gardener then, but I soon figured out, too, that anything that grows so quickly where nothing else does is not a good tree:) Now I'm fighting mulberry trees--those darned things are just as persistent!

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    1. Rose, that's exactly what I had to learn over several seasons --- if it grows too fast in a place where nothing else grows, it's not a tree you want! Good luck against the mulberry volunteers.

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  2. Laurrie, at least you questioned the rapid growth of these invasive trees, took time to positively identify them as invasive, and are committed to keeping them from infiltrating and overtaking your property before they become an even larger problem. You deserve a gardener's pat on the green thumb!

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    1. didn't mean to post twice ... the first time I received an error message ... apparently in error!

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    2. Joene, I like the ways this works --- I make a gardening mistake, confess it, and I get a pat on the thumb from an experienced gardener :)

      I do feel virtuous now, having eliminated a pest tree from the meadow, but I know it may be a battle to keep after them.

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  3. I really enjoy your blog!

    My husband and I fought both tree of heaven and mulberry at our old place, and we lost. It's really hard to get rid of Ailanthus if there are "mother ships" (established large trees) nearby that keep sending out poison runners *and* seedlings. Total nightmare.

    When I visited the Brooklyn Botanical Garden last year for the first time, I wanted a T-shirt to commemorate the experience, but every last one of them in the gift shop had a picture of Ailanthus on the front because that's the tree from A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. I could not bring myself to wear a picture of that vile thing on my person, so I passed.

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    1. Karin, thanks. I am hoping my battle with ailanthus won't defeat me. There are huge mother trees around, though. I'm with you on the T shirts (we were just at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden on Sunday) -- I wouldn't wear one with the tree of heaven, no matter how iconic.

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  4. 'Preciate the warnings, Laurrie. We're all guilty of missing those logical signs about volunteers. Best thing I've heard ailanthus called is Tree of Hell.

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    1. Lee, Tree of Hell is an inversion that really fits --- I am sure I'll be battling these volunteers in years to come.

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  5. A tough tree to control. "That is, trees that grow like weeds are weeds." So true.

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    1. Donna, I have to laugh at how excited I got seeing these wildly rampant trees shooting up. I knew it was a weed, it had to be a weed, I was sure such a fast grower was a weed, . . . and yet I hoped.

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  6. When we moved into our new home, there was an area at the back of the lot where the backyard neighbor pushed all his yard debris. We had popcorn trees, Chinese privet and mimosa trees growing back there. Luckily, a friend came by for a house warming and pointed these menaces out. I cut down over 19 mimosa trees in our less than 1/4 acre piece of property. Each has over 500 seeds a year. Each one has flowers that absolutely intoxicate the pollinators, so that they don't pollinate the regular plants, only the mimosas. What a menace! (I live in southern Alabama and these three are actually on the invasive species list for our state with advise to cut down every one you see. )

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    1. Cristy, Good thing you got at all those mimosas right away (up here, out of their zone, it is quite an accomplishment to grow a mimosa and gardeners are proud to have one in the yard! I've seen only a few that do well) Any aggressive or invasive plant takes real watchfulness and constant work to eradicate.

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  7. I hate invasive tree and flora just as much as I do the bugs and pests that infest my trees! Its such repetitive work year round to just get rid of them.

    -Oscar Valencia

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    1. Oscar, it is a lot like emptying the dishwasher. You deal with them over and over, and when you turn around there they are again (the invasives and the dirty dishes, both!)

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  8. Kudos for doing the research to figure out what it was! I did the same thing recently with some weeds I thought were forget-me-not coming back. It turns out I just let a bunch of weeds steal light, water, and nutrients from nearby plants and I never got one single blue flower.

    Also: "A pat on the thumb" is the greatest mixed metaphor ever.

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    1. Heather, a pat on the green thumb for you! You are learning, along with the rest of us, that nurturing weeds is dumb. But we all do it, until we figure out what that pretty thing growing in the garden really is. Weeds are so manipulative.

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  9. I'm so glad someone else admitted to doing this too! How many weeds have I guarded over the years making sure nothing harmed them? Now that you know you'll never forget what this seedling looks like though.

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    1. Marguerite, It really helps to recognize the villains at their earliest stages. I can tell bittersweet seedlings now when they are still tiny, and most other invasives as well, so they are easier to eradicate before they get a good start. And now I know what ailanthus looks like!

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  10. My lot is bordered on two sides by buffer zone property (untended open space). I've tried to maintain what I call a reclamation area between my established gardens and these wild areas but it hasn't been easy. Last night I looked behind the garage and realized I was losing the battle. Ugh! I don't think there is any Ailanthus but maybe I'd better take a closer look.

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    1. Sue, If you have ailanthus, you will soon know. It shoots up tall in just a season or two and becomes a real tree right after that. A very aggressive grower. Good luck with what lurks behind your garage!

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  11. Hi Laurrie, My own version of this story has to do with Japanese Knotweed. 11 years later and I am still trying to get rid of it in the back yard. It even spread to the adjoining vacant lot. Horrible, horrible woody plant! Good luck with your own invaders!

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    1. Jennifer, ack, not the awful knotweed. I see it around our town and it is impossible to eradicate, or even keep to a certain size.

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  12. And they look so innocent. We get a lot of Bradford Pear volunteers around here. I have a weed tree growing at the corner of my lot... thought it was a butternut, but I better give it a hard stare...

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    1. Larkspur, go check that "butternut"! That's what I thought I had, either some kind of nut tree or an ash. How disappointing to find otherwise.

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  13. I occasionally pull these nasties out of my garden. They have tough roots that are hard to remove. I once babied a multiflora rose until I realized what it was. Then it got the ax!

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    1. Tammy, I tended multiflora rose at one time, too! Not anymore, though . . .

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  14. Another bad thing about ailanthus is they are known to cause trouble for people (or pets) with seasonal allergies.

    I have a huge ailanthus on my property line which i'd love to get rid of. I did this spring cut down an ailanthus volunteer which seemingly appeared out of nowhere. Suddenly, I had a 20 foot tall sapling. down it went, along with a locust.

    Don't ailanthus look awfully similar to sumac?

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    1. Yes ailanthus does look very much like sumac. The staghorn sumac has a fuzzy sort of bark on the stem, and ailanthus is smooth, that's one way to tell them apart. I know what you mean about "suddenly a 20 foot tall sapling"... they grow like crazy.

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