Species: A. altissima
Botanical drawing of the leaves, flowers and samaras from Britton and Brown's 1913 Illustrated flora of the northern states and Canada
A. altissima is a medium-sized tree that reaches heights between 17 and 27 metres (56 and 90 ft) with a diameter at breast height of about 1 metre (40 in). The bark is smooth and light grey, often becoming somewhat rougher with light tan fissures as the tree ages. The twigs are stout, smooth to lightly pubescent, and reddish or chestnut in colour. They have lenticels as well as heart-shaped leaf scars (i.e. a scar left on the twig after a leaf falls) with many bundle scars (i.e. small marks where the veins of the leaf once connected to the tree) around the edges. The buds are finely pubescent, dome shaped, and partially hidden behind the petiole, though they are completely visible in the dormant season at the sinuses of the leaf scars. The branches are light to dark gray in colour, smooth, lustrous, and containing raised lenticels that become fissures with age. The ends of the branches become pendulous. All parts of the plant have a distinguishing strong odour that is often likened to peanuts, cashews, or rotting cashews.
The leaves are large, odd- or even-pinnately compound, and arranged alternately on the stem. They range in size from 30 to 90 cm (0.98 to 2.95 ft) in length and contain 10–41 leaflets organised in pairs, with the largest leaves found on vigorous young sprouts. When they emerge in the spring, the leaves are bronze then quickly turn from medium to dark green as they grow. The rachis is light to reddish-green with a swollen base. The leaflets are ovate-lanceolate with entire margins, somewhat asymmetric and occasionally not directly opposite to each others. Each leaflet is 5 to 18 cm (2.0 to 7.1 in) long and 2.5 to 5 cm (0.98 to 1.97 in) wide. They have a long tapering end while the bases have two to four teeth, each containing one or more glands at the tip. The leaflets' upper sides are dark green in colour with light green veins, while the undersides are a more whitish green. The petioles are 5 to 12 mm (0.20 to 0.47 in) long. The lobed bases and glands distinguish it from similar sumac species.
Bark and flowers of A. altissima
Immature seeds on a female tree.
Tree of Heaven Re-sprouting even after herbicide use to restore Red Butte Creek in Salt Lake City. By removing invasive species like the tree of heaven which overcrowd native trees, the local ecosystem functions much better.
The flowers are small and appear in large panicles up to 50 cm (20 in) in length at the end of new shoots. The individual flowers are yellowish green to reddish in colour, each with five petals and sepals. The sepals are cup-shaped, lobed and united while the petals are valvate (i.e. they meet at the edges without overlapping), white and hairy towards the inside.They appear from mid-April in the south of its range to July in the north. A. altissima is dioecious, with male and female flowers being borne on different individuals. Male trees produce three to four times as many flowers as the females, making the male flowers more conspicuous. Furthermore, the male plants emit a foul-smelling odour while flowering to attract pollinating insects. Female flowers contain ten (or rarely five through abortion) sterile stamens (stamenoides) with heart-shaped anthers. The pistil is made up of five free carpels (i.e. they are not fused), each containing a single ovule. Their styles are united and slender with star-shaped stigmas. The male flowers are similar in appearance, but they of course lack a pistil and the stamens do function, each being topped with a globular anther and a glandular green disc. The fruits grow in clusters; a fruit cluster may contain hundreds of seeds. The seeds borne on the female trees are 5 mm in diameter and each is encapsulated in a samara that is 2.5 cm long (1 in) and 1 cm (0.39 in) broad, appearing July though August, but can persist on the tree until the next spring. The samara is large and twisted at the tips, making it spin as it falls, assisting wind dispersal, and aiding buoyancy for long-distance dispersal through hydrochory. The females can produce huge amounts of seeds, normally around 30,000 per kilogram (14,000/lb) of tree, and fecundity can be estimated non-destructively through measurements of dbh.