This is The Rowley Gallery joiners shop in the summer of 2012, a black wooden shed perched on the flat roof of the ground floor workshop. Access is by spiral staircase and it’s where I join picture frames. It sits in the shelter of a towering tree-of-heaven, Ailanthus altissima, which in my early days here I remember as a self-sown seedling. No-one paid it too much attention, but before long I loved its dappled light in summer, and in winter I measured the sky through its mesh of branches.
It sometimes felt as if I were working in a treehouse. On sunny days there was a mesmerising play of light through its complex foliage, filling my workshop with their dancing, overlapping shadows. The leaves of tree-of-heaven are pinnate or feather-like, each leaf made up of many leaflets on one stem.
When the leaflets fall the central stem or rachis remains on the tree for a while but then it also falls. In autumn the yard was littered with these long, flexible twigs. I was delighted to discover that Brice Marden used them as a drawing tool. Here’s an excerpt from A Vision of the Unsayable by John Yau, an essay which appeared in the catalogue to Marden’s 1988 exhibition at the Anthony d’Offay Gallery:
…During the early ’70s, he begins picking up twigs and branches that have fallen from an ailanthus growing near his house in New York. …In his studio, three tables are placed at right angles to each other, forming an alcove. On one of the end tables is a drawing board and clusters of cans, each of them filled with ailanthus twigs.
Ailanthus is a deciduous tree native to China but naturalised in North America, particularly in urban areas. The word comes from a Latin derivation of Amboinese, ai lanto, ‘tree of heaven.’ …Used as a drawing tool, the twigs integrate deliberateness and accident. They achieve this integration by removing the artist from the process of making the lines bleed. The ink bleeds on its own, as if it were a pure utterance. By choosing a stick, one of mankind’s first drawing tools, Marden approaches the realm of selflessness from still another angle…
But not everyone was as enthusiastic as I was. Some thought it gave too much shade, others said there was too much leaf litter, so it was agreed that we should call in the tree surgeon for a short back and sides. Earlier its branches had been tapping at my window. I’d felt like I was the tree’s protector and I began reading up so I could better defend it, but what I found didn’t really help.
I read Richard Mabey in Flora Britannica who sounded hopeful:
It is especially numerous around Kensington, where planted trees are frequent in the nearby Royal Parks. And, though the flowers’ nectar is regarded as acrid-smelling by many humans, it is relished by bees, and believed to be responsible for the muscat-flavoured honey that is occasionally found in west London beehives.
But in the USA the Plant Conservation Alliance classify it as a least wanted alien:
Tree-of-heaven is a fast-growing tree and a prolific seeder, that can take over sites, replacing native plants and forming dense thickets. Ailanthus also produces chemicals that prevent the establishment of other plant species nearby. Its root system may be extensive and has been known to cause damage to sewers and foundations.
And even Kew Gardens don’t seem too enamoured by it:
…the tree contains a chemical called ailanthone which is toxic and suppresses the growth of other plants in its proximity. This invasive nature and the prolific growth of suckers that are difficult to remove has meant that far from being the tree of beauty it was once considered, is now more often thought of as a noxious weed in many countries…
I began watching out for tree-of-heaven and found these prime examples, one on the Euston Road opposite the station, another on Canonbury Place in Islington, each one given the space and freedom to grow into a handsome tree. I remembered the celebrated tree-of-heaven in Duncan Terrace Gardens
where London Fieldworks installed a Spontaneous City of bespoke bird boxes. They built some beautiful constructions, more of which can be seen here, but I’m curious to know if any are inhabited. I hung bird feeders from our tree-of-heaven but they attracted very few birds, maybe deterred by its pungent smell. I’d always thought the smell was fox, ever since we found one under the spiral stairs.
Eventually though, it became obvious that not only was it a smelly tree, it also threatened serious damage to the building. Its shallow roots were undermining our workshop’s foundations. We asked the tree surgeon back again, this time not for a trim, but more a full amputation and without anaesthetic!
It was a sad but spectacular farewell. Our tree-of-heaven reduced to a box of logs. RIP, rest in pieces.
Now the joiners shop is no longer a treehouse, the light is now raw and unfiltered, it’s exposed and unprotected, the wind shakes my windows and rattles my walls, but the frames they are amazing!
Here’s a reminder of how it started – The Street Tree, and here’s another song from Imani Coppola –
…everything around you is just part of every other thing, I am a tree…
See also Tree Of Heaven (Slight Return)