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Tree of Heaven...Or Elsewhere?

I got up early this morning and visited a few trees that I’ve had my eye on for essence-making: Sourwood (Oxydendrum arboreum), Linden (Tilia americana) and Tree of Heaven (Ailanthus altissima). Most trees around here are all flowered-out at this point in the season, but these three (and a handful of others) are late to the blooming party.

The Sourwood and Linden aren’t quite ready yet. Both have buds, but it’ll be a few more days. The Tree of Heaven - also known as Chinese Sumac - looked just about perfect. Today would have been THE day to make this essence. The only problem: I could NOT make myself do it.

I stood there for a long time, staring at the tree. I was all set to go. I had my gear, it was a beautiful morning - the first sunny day in a while.

I felt something that I don’t think I’ve ever felt in the company of any other tree. I experienced an enormous - and I do mean, enormous - aversion to it. I did not want to touch its leaves or its flowers, even with gloves on which I’d brought with me because I’d read that the sap can be irritating.

My gut was telling me that it was not in my best interest to make this essence today. The tree felt aggressive, poisonous, difficult. I got the impression that I wasn’t ready to interact with this particular growing thing…that it either wasn’t a beneficial tree to make into an essence (which I’m not sure I believe) or that its effects were somehow beyond my capabilities at this time.

So I walked away, feeling…puzzled, disappointed, rattled. I made the only choice that felt right, but for the past few hours, I’ve been re-seeing the tree’s leaflets and airy white flowers in my mind’s eye and feeling haunted by the visuals.

Native to central China and Taiwan, the Tree of Heaven was introduced to North America (in Philly) in the 1700s. It became popular as an exotic ornamental in the 1800s. It’s now considered a tenacious, invasive species, as it thrives in disturbed soil and generally unfavorable conditions.

The female trees produce huge numbers of seeds each year - up to 300,000+. Once these trees are established in a spot, they’re very hard to clear. If you try to cut down a Tree of Heaven without excavating its root system, new trees will sprout up with a vengeance, forming from root fragments left in the soil. These trees also secrete a substance that’s toxic to other native plants, so they tend to damage diversity and form dense thickets…of themselves.

So my day has evolved into me sitting with several discomforts: the discomfort of not making an essence I thought I wanted to make, of not really understanding why I feel the way I do, of having to experience this powerful and lingering aversion to something. I’m hopeful that at some point today, these sensations will dissipate. I think I may have gotten an energetic dose of “invasive” and “toxic” which has left quite the impression. Maybe things will shift next season, and I'll feel more inclined to work this tree, but for the moment, I'm just trusting the "no" even if it's a mystery.

I'm also feeling curious now about aversions of various kinds - those impulses we all have to steer clear of certain places, people, circumstances, plants. If you happen to read this - if you're an essence maker or not - I'd be curious to hear about any insights you might have on the subject. Have your instincts stopped you from making an essence - or saved you from a dodgy situation? Does your gut know things that your brain doesn't? Hmm. Much to ponder here.

It doesn't look that bad, does it?


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