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).
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