Ailanthus altissima: The Tree from Hell

Ailanthus altissima, the Tree of Heaven or Varnish Tree, is a deciduous tree native to northeast and central China first introduced in Europe in the eighteenth century because of its elegant leaves. Widely known to horticulturalists as the Tree of Hell, it’s notorious for wiping out native species with toxins it excretes in the soil, and the pungent smell of its flowers, and it’s now considered one of the worst invasive plant species in Europe.

Over the last few decades, Ailanthus altissima has quickly spread in the Alta Murgia National Park (southern Italy) which is mostly characterised by dry grassland and pseudo-steppe, wide-open spaces with low vegetation, which are very vulnerable to invasion. Ailanthus altissima causes serious direct and indirect damages to ecosystems, replacing and altering communities that have great conservation value, producing severe ecological, environmental and economic effects, and causing natural habitat loss and degradation. A team at the Italian National Research Council (CNR) started applying satellite remote sensing research methods to detect the distribution of the species, with a view to modelling and predicting future scenarios of diffusion; a EU funded “Life Alta Murgia” project in the framework of the Life+Biodiversity programme 2013-19 attempted to eradicate the pest while providing both the expert knowledge and valuable in-field data for the Ailanthus validation case study, which was conceived and developed within the Internal Joint Initiative of LifeWatch ERIC. More information here