This week in Sidewalk Botany:

Tree-of-Heaven and Peeling Puffballs

Tree-of-Heaven (Ailanthus altissima)

One was used in Traditional Chinese Medicine. The other is fun to step on.

Tree-of-Heaven (Ailanthus altissima)

Tree-of-Heaven (aka Ailanthus altissima) is one or the most controversial trees I know of. Loved by some who see it as proof that life persists even in the most difficult of circumstances, others see it as a colonizing “trash” tree. 

Originally from China and Taiwan, Ailanthus altissima was utilized in traditional chinese medicine. Specimens were introduced to the US as landscaping trees in the late 1700’s. The saplings look somewhat similar to native walnut trees, but are easily distinguishable by the distinctive popcorn smell of the leaves. Tree-of-Heaven is found in almost every urban ecosystem in the United States —  thriving even in polluted and rocky soil. An allelopathic plant, Tree-of-Heaven makes the soil in its vicinity less hospitable for other plants. Often it grows in stands from the root suckers. 

The fact that the Tree-of-Heaven can grow five feet in a single year and thrives in areas with a lot of air pollution makes me wonder if it may actually be pretty darn good at sequestering carbon — but hey, maybe that’s just me trying not to get to caught up in all the shade people throw at this common urban tree. That said, when I see saplings emerging around my home, I remove them and favor plants that are important food sources for wildlife.

Peeling Puff Balls (Lycoperdon marginatum)

I loved finding patches of puffballs in the woods when I was a kid. To this day, I still delight in puffing out the spores in a brown smoky cloud. These guys aren’t mature yet — eventually the spiky outer skin will fall off in layers and they will dry out a little. That’s when they are ready to puff! 

Skip foraging the peeling puffball, they aren’t edible like the common puffball. To get started identifying plants (and mushrooms and other more than human neighbors) around you, join us on the Detroiters Do Science project on iNaturalist.

I’ll be taking a little hiatus from posting botanical graffiti-style posts so I can switch over to planning and promoting the Life in the Cracks exhibition! Please submit your art inspired by the ecologies that emerge within the cracks by September 15th! All ages are welcome to submit. Learn more here.