Tree of Heaven vs Sumac: Key Differences and How to Remove Them

Written by Jeffery Martin
Updated: October 24, 2023
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It’s easy to confuse sumac, especially the Staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina), with the invasive plant, Tree of Heaven (Ailanthus altissima). Initially popular with landscapers as an ornamental plant, Tree of Heaven fell out of favor with designers of outdoor spaces leaving the plants to run wild. Both the Tree of Heaven and Staghorn sumac grow large and can pose a danger to people and structures. How can you tell the differences between these two plants and how can you safely get rid of them? Let’s take an in-depth look at the differences between the Tree of Heaven and the Staghorn sumac and how to control both of them.

#1 Botanical Characteristics and Habitat

Blue sky and crown of Ailanthus altissima in August

The Tree of Heaven is so called because of its immense height.

©apugach/ via Getty Images

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Tree of Heaven

Tree of Heaven is also known as the “Stink Tree” because of the foul odor of its flowers. Humans don’t like the scent, but pollinators like birds and bees are attracted to the blooms. China is the original home of the Tree of Heaven. It was brought to North America by Chinese immigrants during the 1920s, who used it for medicinal purposes. Non-native and invasive, the Tree of Heaven is commonly found in California, the mid-Atlantic region, and the Northwest U.S. areas.

Fast-growing, the Tree of Heaven can grow between 10-15 feet per year. Left alone, the plant can reach heights upwards of 80 feet and diameters of six feet around. Empowered by a massive root system, the Tree of Heaven grows colonies, or “clones.” One tree can produce up to 30,000 seeds which are spread by the wind. Underground, the Tree of Heaven creates a root sucker system that can sprout shoots above ground up to 50 feet away from the source plant. The Tree of Heaven does not thrive in full sun, but will aggressively spread in practically any other kind of growing condition.

Rhus typhina

Pollinators are attracted to the flowers of the Staghorn sumac.

©shalom3/Shutterstock.com

Staghorn Sumac

Staghorn sumac is native to eastern North America. The plant can be considered somewhat invasive because of its ability to spread rapidly. The shrub sends out root suckers to expand into dense colonies and, left unchecked, can take over empty areas of land. While the Staghorn sumac can reach up to 30 feet in height, it normally tops out at around 15 feet tall. Typically beginning in May, the Staghorn sumac produces flowers that are visited by pollinators. Female plants produce berries, or drupes, in the late summer and early fall. Drupes will remain on the plant until the spring, providing food for birds over the winter.

Branches of the Staghorn sumac are covered with brown hairs that resemble the velvet which covers deer antlers. It can be found from Canada down to South Carolina, and as far as Alabama, Illinois, and Iowa in the U.S. Flourishing in rocky, dry soil, the Staghorn sumac does well in full sun or partial shade. It can be found along railroads, roadsides, and the edges of hardwood forests.

#2 Invasive Nature and Ecological Impacts

Once the Staghorn sumac and Tree of Heaven establish a hold on a patch of land, their fast growth and tenacious root systems can alter local environments for the worse.

ailanthus altissima

Tree of Heaven plants deplete the resources other plants need to survive.

©ernstboese/ via Getty Images

Destruction of Native Plants

Plants rely on nutrients in the soil to survive. When invasive plants are introduced, their roots expand and begin absorbing those nutrients. In essence, the native plants are unable to get enough food to survive. The invaders also soak up a tremendous amount of water. By those means, invasive plants will choke out practically everything growing around them and take over.

Restriction of Sunlight

Both the Staghorn sumac and Tree of Heaven grow to great heights. When that occurs, the leaves of the invasive species can overshadow the native plants beneath. The invaders receive a majority of the sunlight, causing the plants below to atrophy. That increased amount of shade also has a negative effect on the chemistry of the soil and the amount of rainwater the native plants receive.

Weakening the Food Chain

When invasive plants take over, they deprive the local wildlife of obtaining food. Vegetation that the animals rely on for survival gets smothered by the invaders. In some cases, invasive plants can completely overtake the natural habitats of animals. This causes the wildlife to either adapt to the available food or relocate to a different area.

Chemical Warfare

Some invasive plants, including the Staghorn sumac and Tree of Heaven, clear the way for their own growth via a process called allelopathy. Allelopathic chemicals contain growth inhibitors that harm neighboring plants. Some native plants may not grow at all around the invasive species, allowing the invaders to grow without let. This can be detrimental to both flower and vegetable gardens.

#3 Identification and Removal Techniques

Although Staghorn sumac is often confused for Tree of Heaven, there are some distinguishing characteristics that will help you tell the difference between the two.

Plant NameLeavesTrunkFruitSizeLeaf Stems
Staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina)Serrated only at leaf baseGrey, with lighter-colored vertical markingsCones of red berries growing uprightShort leaning trunk, potentially growing to 40 feet tallCovered in velvety hairs, like a deer antler
Tree of Heaven (Allianthus altissima)Smooth leaf edgesGrey, with horizontal markingsDry seeds encased in brownish samarasStraight trunk, potentially growing to 80 feet tallHairless
Green leaves of ailanthus supreme. Ailanthus altissima. Chinese ash

Smooth leaf edges are common features of Tree of Heaven plants.

©Nadiya Senko/ via Getty Images

Getting Rid of Tree of Heaven

Controlling the growth of Tree of Heaven is an involved process. When a Tree of Heaven is wounded by a mower or saw, the plant will send out more shoots as a defense mechanism. When possible, pull the Tree of Heaven seedlings from the ground by hand. Removing the entire root system is the best way to keep Tree of Heaven from taking over. If the plant is already established, introducing herbicide to the root system is your best bet.

In mid-to-late summer, the bark of Tree of Heaven plants can be sprayed with an oil-based herbicide. For larger plants, make spaced cuts around the base of the plant. The rule of thumb is one cut per inch of diameter. Spray an herbicide solution into those cuts right away. The Tree of Heaven will then absorb the poison into its root system.

If a Tree of Heaven must be cut down, herbicide should be applied to the stump to avoid suckers from popping up. Consult your local agricultural extension agent for the proper quantities and kinds of herbicides to use.

Getting Rid of Staghorn Sumac

Staghorn Sumac in Bright Red Fall Colors

Staghorn sumac can grow in large clumps.

©Wildnerdpix/ via Getty Images

Mowing down Staghorn sumac is a common way of clearing large patches of the plant, but unless the roots are killed, it will repopulate. Burning large swaths of the plant will destroy all the visible vegetation while leaving the roots intact. As with Tree of Heaven, herbicide is the best way to eliminate Staghorn sumac. Smaller plants can be treated with herbicide applied directly to the bark. Larger plants can be eradicated by making cut marks into the step of the plant and applying poison to those cuts.

Getting rid of Staghorn sumac and Tree of Heaven requires patience. One application of herbicide won’t be enough to eradicate the plants. It may take multiple rounds of poison and a few growing seasons to completely clear the land of those invasive plants.

#4 Alternative Native Plants for Landscaping

When designing your outdoor space, look for plants that are non-invasive and native to your area. You’ll find it easier to control plants that don’t spread or reseed aggressively. Using native plants keeps you from introducing a new species into your greenspace that may not thrive. Talk with your plant supplier to learn more about those options. It’s also a good idea to check the USDA Plant Hardiness Zone map to ensure the plants you’ve chosen have the best chance at survival.

If you have the space, silver maple (Acer saccharum) trees make a gorgeous centerpiece in your yard. They can grow up to 100 feet tall and are hardy in zones 3-9. The underside of the leaves has a shimmery silver tone. A smaller plant, Fringetrees (Chionathus virginicus) only reaches an approximate height of 12 feet. In the spring, fringetrees exhibit delicate white flowers. Fringetrees are also hardy in zones 3-9.

Small tree The White fringetree (Chionanthus virginicus) with richly-scented, pure white flowers in the garden with bright blue sky in the background

With their long white blooms, fringetrees can provide a nice focal point for your outdoor space.

©Kristine Radkovska/ via Getty Images

Flowering shrubs can add a splash of color to your garden. The American Beautyberry (Callicarpa americana) produces small flowers that attract pollinators during the early part of the summer. After that, the plant exhibits clusters of purple berries that can remain on the shrub over the winter. American Beautyberry is considered hardy in zones 6-11.

Despite its name, mountain mint (Pycnanthemum muticum) is not meant for culinary usage. However, it works well as a fast-spreading ground cover. The plant’s growth can be easily controlled with a trake or other digging tool. Its fragrant leaves, which smell somewhat like spearmint, are unattractive to deer. Mountain mint is hardy in zones 3-9.

Summary

Tree of Heaven and Staghorn sumac are both considered aggressive and invasive plants. They will take over garden spaces, choking out other plants and inhibiting their growth. Seedlings and the root system should be removed by hand if spotted while young. A series of herbicide treatments will eradicate both plants over time. Consider choosing native, non-invasive plants for your landscaped areas.

The photo featured at the top of this post is ©


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About the Author

Jeffery Martin is a writer at A-Z Animals where his primary focus is on plants and cats. Jeffery has been a professional writer and editor for over 10 years. A resident of Tennessee, Jeffery enjoys camping, traveling through the southern United States with his wife, researching Appalachian folklore, and taking care of his two cats.

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