Saturday, June 18, 2016

An Unwelcome Guest in Orvieto



Italy and Texas are two very different places, not only culturally, but visually. Italy is much more lush than Texas. Plants seem to thrive here in a way that they do not in Texas, which can be a good and a bad thing. Looking at how well so many common crops grow here I would have assumed that they were native to Italy, but a majority of them are not. Even grapes and olives, which are two of Italy’s most iconic crops originate from the Middle East and have become naturalized over time. While Italy’s favorable climate is definitely a plus when it comes to growing food crops, it can be a drawback when an invasive species makes its way into the landscape. So when we visited Orvieto which rests at the summit of a steep hill we had the perfect view of the valley below, and of the takeover of Ailanthus altissima amongst the local vegetation. The common name of this deciduous tree is ailanthus or the tree of heaven and is native to China and Taiwan and belongs to the Simaroubaceae family. Nicknamed the stink tree, ailanthus is a rapidly growing tree which can form suckers and resprouts vigorously when cut, making it difficult to get rid of once it’s established. Another aggravating trait of this species is that it produces ailanthone, a chemical which suppresses the growth of other plants. A combination of physical, thermal, managerial, biological or chemical methods must be used to have any hope of eradicating, or even controlling this tree’s population. So when it comes to preserving the natural flora and fauna the presence of this tree is a nightmare. I must admit that this tree does have its uses and good points. The leaves, roots and bark is still used in traditional Chinese medicine as an astringent. Ailanthus is capable of growing in highly polluted, acidic soils that are low in phosphorus and high in salts with very little water where few other trees can, and does so aggressively. In essence this tree is a survivor and a conqueror. As much of a headache as it causes from an ecological point of view I must admit a begrudging respect for it.

-Lisa C. Maciques

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