Tree of Heaven: A Natural Antibiotic

Tree of Heaven (Image by Wikipedia)

Tree of Heaven, Ailanthus altissima, may be best known for its starring role in the bestselling novel “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn,” but I bet you’ve seen it lots of times. Commonly found in urban waste places across America and the world, it smells like popcorn when you rub its shiny leaves and looks similar to sumac. The root bark of this plant is a natural antibiotic used around the world to treat malaria and kill parasitic worms. It is an important herb in traditional Chinese medicine and its powers have been verified by western science, too.

A study on the website for the National Institute of Health documents antimicrobial effects in the bark and fruits of the plant. A study by researchers at Washington University in St. Louis showed the plant can kill drug-resistant malaria.

While malaria may sound like a disease of the tropics or other far-away lands, the mosquito-borne parasite is predicted to become increasingly common in the United States as a result of climate change. It’s even expected to hit the Pacific Northwest in particular, according to a new report just released by the Climate Futures Forum.

That same active ingredient, ailanthone, also works as a natural herbicide. A Harvard University study (see the PDF here) found that Tree of Heaven contains compounds in its roots that kill neighboring plants, and that these compounds can be isolated and applied to unwanted weeds to great effect without causing widespread ecological destruction like artificially manufactured herbicides do.

There is even some evidence that Tree of Heaven can kill tumors, and a derivative of a chemical in the root has been patented for that use.

You can make your own folk medicine out of Tree of Heaven using the fresh or dried inner bark or root bark or you can make a cold tea out of the winged fruit or root bark. I have not been able to locate a recipe for the tincture, the alcohol extract, so I’d wing it. I’d do a roughly 1:2 ratio of chopped bark to alcohol (70% strength), using more alcohol if the roots are dried first. Update: It is advised to wear gloves while handling the bark because there have been reports of the sap causing blisters on contact.

Tree of Heaven is a godsend. 😉 Please get the word out – share this post with your friends and family.

*Note: Do not eat this plant. First of all it is very bitter, and secondly it may make you barf (according to some herbalists).

Explore many more wild plants on the Search Plants! page.

24 thoughts on “Tree of Heaven: A Natural Antibiotic

  1. Six years later and still so many misled people. If you want the sap and bark, kill the tree and harvest away. Take its neighbors. Take it all. It is a Tree of Hell. It invades North American forests and literally overtakes the forest killing all native species in its path. Goodbye Oaks, Maples, Hickories, etc! Goodbye native North American wildlife that lived in your branches and understory! Wacky herbalists (who should import the tincture fron China where it doesn’t kill everything in its path) would rather have this plant than a healthy ecosystem. SMH…

  2. I have seen the Tree of Heaven in every country where I have traveled. Now I know why. It is a Godsend. I have them growing in the wild part of my back yard, and now I know that it is a medicinal plant, I will harvest it , for use. Anyone who would like some can write me at KatGrafix@aol.com, put TREE OF HEAVEN in the Subject heading, and I will gladly share the leaves, rood, bark, what ever you desire.

    • Do some research! It’s a dangerous plant. Tree surgeons have been rushed to hospital with heart problems because of exposure to the sap. It kills other plants with its toxins too, and sends runners all over the place, incredibly hard to remove.

    • Stephen Buhner included a recipe for Ailanthus Tincture in his book: “Herbal Antibiotics” p.364. It is: “dried inner bark 1:5, 50 percent alcohol.” He has also written a bit on the benefits and medicine in this invasive. Buhner, who has thought a lot on the subject has an interesting take on “invasives” for anyone who’d like to think about the topic.

  3. I live in Utah. The tree is aggressive and kills other plants so it can grow and spread. It is impossible to get rid of. If you want leaves or bark in Sept 2012 for medicinal purposes, I will send you some, just pay shipping. I am trying to eradicate these soon but chances are, I’ll be at it for over a year.

  4. Are there any tree of heaven trees in the Great northwest? Im in Tacoma, wa and would love to stumble upon one and pinch a sprig.

    • Seedfein, yes there are Tree of Heaven trees in the Northwest. I know of a parent tree and several saplings in a public wild area in SE King County. I’d be happy to show them to you or send you a link to a Google map of the location.

      You need to be a little careful about identification. Their compound leaves look similar to the native Oregon Ash. The most obvious difference is that Tree of Heaven leaves branch off alternating from the main stem while Oregon Ash leaves branch off in opposite pairs. Just remember, the ‘O’ for Oregon is also the ‘O’ for opposite.

      • So happy to have found this!! Identification: Alianthus STINKS!!! I remember it from my childhood in Chicago. We called it “weed tree” I believe the folklore is that it was brought over from China to feed silkworms for the silk industry.
        As for getting rid of it- I do not know, but try white vinegar saturation and cutting runners.

  5. Anna,

    In most trees I believe bark is ideally harvested during springtime because that’s when the sap is running, and roots are harvested during fall/winter because that’s when the plant’s energy is focused there. But I am not sure about TofH in particular. Could not find any resources out there on how to make medicine from it, just general useage guidelines.

  6. Thanks for the report. If you learn anything more about the tincture please be sure to share it.

    The Encyclopedia of Edible Plants of North America (Couplan – 1998) states,
    “The leaves were reportedly eaten in times of famine in China. They have the characteristic smell of roasted almonds.

    They were also used for growing silkworm. But the leaves cause dermatitis in some people and the sap of the tree is vesicant (causing blisters).”

    • Tom,

      Thanks for bringing this up. On Facebook someone commented that a landscaper friend experienced the blisters from handling the bark. (I have touched the leaves many times with no problems, but have not handled the bark or sap).

  7. I just learned about the amazing virtues of the Tree of Heaven from the book Invasive Plant Medicine – have you read it?
    I was wondering when do you think would be the best time to harvest for medicine? My gut says Spring time. Do you think before it leafs completely out or when it is full?

    Thanks!

    -A

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