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Trees of Heaven on Highway to Hell

Written by Zachary Jernigan

Published: 01 August 2016 by the JournalAZ

One of the area’s most invasive species has a rather misleading name: Tree of heaven calls to mind a plant of ethereal — and even elusive — beauty.

But while few would call trees of heaven ugly, they are anything but elusive. Their broad-leaved limbs can be found drooping everywhere in the Verde Valley. Even with one’s eyes closed, trees of heaven can’t be avoided: The smell they exude has been variously described, falling somewhere between sweaty gym socks and rancid peanuts.

It’s what a tree of heaven does underground that really earns it its nastier nicknames: Widowmaker and tree of hell. The plant’s roots leach chemicals into the ground, killing off its neighbors, threatening species and reducing diversity.

Its continued existence is a real danger to native plants.

The Camp Verde Tree Advisory Council has a plan for the species — one its members carried out with lethal efficiency along Main Street Thursday, July 14.

“We pulled, cut or poisoned 40 trees of heaven,” council member Tony Gioia said.

The process of eradication wasn’t complicated, but it was sweaty and smelly work. Members made short work of any tree of heaven under 6 feet tall, cutting the larger individuals down near the root and poisoning the stump, preventing it from doing what it would otherwise do so well: Resprouting, living on past a wound that would kill a less hardy tree.

The effort isn’t simply about removing a species that threatens native plants. Camp Verde is one of the few municipalities in the state to be designated a Tree City USA by the Arbor Day Foundation.

According to Gioia, the designation inspired the Camp Verde Tree Advisory Council to come up with a municipal urban forest plan, which includes a “palette” of appropriate native tree species to plant and maintain in the town’s various ecological zones.

For Gioia, the effort has far-reaching implications: Not only does discouraging invasive trees help native trees grow, it helps reduce the amount of water used. Native trees, on average, require less watering than invasive trees.