by Bev Wagar

Ailanthus faces the most serious of charges.

“Murder!” is second of my Hort Court stories. These little pieces were originally printed in The Point (the community newspaper of the Crown Point neighbourhood in East Hamilton, Ontario) in my regular gardening column “Lovin’ Your Garden.”

Ailanthus takes the stand.
Drawing by Elizabeth Seidl

With a murder charge on the docket, security was tight at Horticultural Court. The usual shrubs on guard duty were joined by a contingent of red cedar trees who parted briefly to allow the accused, Ailanthus altissima, alias “Tree of Heaven” to pass. The stench was awful. Ailanthus moved quickly—too quickly—and put roots down on the stand before the courtyard crowd could respond. The extreme allelopathy of this tree caused much shuddering and wilting, but despite their distress the onlookers were out for sap, hoping to see Ailanthus, notorious asian thug and gang leader, sent straight to the chipper.

The court clerk read the charge and Ailanthus, with a sneer, replied “Yes, I’m guilty. Foolish humans brought me to this land 200 years ago and it’s been a candy store, let me tell you. My toxic roots have killed thousands of you. Not one of you can compete with my rhizomes and clonal colonies. I’ve ruined countless gardens, ravines, and parks. And me and my gang are out to get your forests, too. Just try to stop me!”

Ailanthus had visibly grown several feet taller already, and was casting shade over the wildflowers in the front row. The tree’s roots were already affecting the jury, a mix of sugar maple, beech, trillium, and native viburnum.

Then ailanthus did something unthinkable–it cast seeds, thousands of them, all around the courtyard. It was a female tree! Most of the onlookers ran for cover. Only a few ornamentals, the cedars, and the judge, M. (Mama) Nature remained. Judge Nature looked uncommonly worried.

“Is there anyone here to provide a defense for Ailanthus?” she asked. A hybrid tea rose looked up from her book of poetry and stepped forward.

“The accused was the subject of a famous novel and movie called A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. It survived drought, neglect, and decades of isolation in a bed of concrete. It became a source of joy and inspiration for a downtrodden inner-city neighbourhood.”

“The amusement of a few humans is irrelevant” Nature stated flatly. “Humans have carelessly unleashed too many alien plants into unsuspecting ecosystems. I am far more concerned about the survival of my forests. Humans keep cutting them and this Ailanthus keeps moving in.”

By this time Ailanthus had sent up a few clonal shoots and most of its seeds had sprouted. The cedars, wary and beginning to feel the toxins from the accused’s fast spreading roots, had begun to desert their posts. The rose, the jury, and all the onlookers had already left. The courtyard was bare, the stink overpowering, and the gloating smirk on Ailanthus face exuded pure evil.

Nature alone would decide this case.

“Surely you know about the Circle of Life. In China you evolved with insects who ate your leaves and roots. You were part of an interconnected web of food and feeders. Now, in North America, there are no creatures to curtail your invasive behaviour. Something needs to feed on you.”

Ailanthus roared with rage as its huge pinnate leaves shook and snapped like whips. Then it attacked, releasing a squadron of high-speed clonal shoots. Reaching into her dress pocket, Mama Nature quickly tossed a handful of spores of Verticillium nonalfalfae, a native fungus, near the trunk.

“You will die in 10 to 16 weeks and the soil will be innoculated against your return. This fungus has no effect on most of my native flora. I have presented it, as a scientific discovery, to human conservationists. Your decades of murderous thuggery may soon be over.”

With Ailanthus already beginning to squirm and wilt, Mama Nature turned and floated out of the courtyard. It had been a trying day and her creatures needed some dormancy. Yuletide celebrations had begun in certain lands. So, looking forward to a winter recess, she headed north.

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