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The Tree of Heaven in Washington Square

Author Henry James. Photo by Bettman/Corbis.

I recently read the novella Washington Square for the first time, eager to see how this 1880 work by Henry James might paint the Square of olden days. Although the story was absorbing – centering on the relationship between a successful physician and the grown daughter who disappoints him – it didn’t provide quite as vivid a scene of the neighborhood as I wished.

That makes the physical descriptions that are included stand out all the more. For example, there is this establishing view of Dr. Austin Sloper’s home, in Chapter Three, which brings to mind the historic row of townhouses still standing today at the park’s northeast corner:

The ideal of quiet and of genteel retirement, in 1835, was found in Washington Square, where the Doctor built himself a handsome, modern, wide-fronted house… .

This structure, and many of its neighbours, which it exactly resembled, were supposed, forty years ago, to embody the last results of architectural science, and they remain to this day very solid and honourable dwellings.

In front of them was the Square, containing a considerable quantity of inexpensive vegetation, enclosed by a wooden paling, which increased its rural and accessible appearance…”

And what vegetation might that be? Ailanthus altissima, the “tree of heaven,” a species brought to the young Republic from China, by way of Europe, some 15 years before the story’s setting – a tree that many Americans today would recognize as the weedy thing that pops up in marginal spots like roadsides. Yet James found it worthy of mentioning several times (though he spelled it without an “h”).

It was here that you took your first walks abroad, following the nursery-maid with unequal step and sniffing up the strange odour of the ailantus-trees which at the time formed the principal umbrage of the Square, and diffused an aroma that you were not yet critical enough to dislike as it deserved…

ailanthus sidewalk
Typical ailanthus behavior.

According to the New-York Historical Society, the ailanthus, after being introduced to the U.S. in 1820, “enjoyed widespread popularity as an exotic ornamental and was especially employed as an urban planting, perhaps because of its resilience and because the species boasts a natural tolerance for pollution.” It was described as a “splendid tree” – until horticulturists began to criticize it for the odor emitted by male plants when flowering, as well as its status as a non-native invasive species, and one that reproduces all too quickly.

It is awfully hardy, though, and although people rarely intentionally plant it anymore, ailanthus is still ubiquitous. In the self-seeded landscape that grew on the High Line over the two-decades-plus that it sat unused by trains, an ailanthus grove developed that was memorably captured by photographer Joel Sternfeld.

ail on HL
From “Walking the High Line,” by Joel Sternfeld.

In homage to the past, ailanthus trees are included in the plantings in the northernmost Rail Yards section of the High Line. Today’s Washington Square Park, however, is not known to include any at all, opting for grander species like elm, dogwood, maple and oak — and no one seems to miss the weed-trees that came before.


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