Tree of Heaven at 13th Street and Olney Avenue in Philadelphia
Einstein Untold: Unsung Heroes and Unknown Stories

Reaching Toward Heaven, It’s One for the Record Books

By on 04/30/2021
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One in an ongoing series

Its bark is mottled with age and its leaves are late to unfurl. But an old tree on the campus of Einstein Medical Center Philadelphia has found forestry fame.

It’s a tree that’s been there for 120 years, absorbing car exhaust at the busy intersection of 13th Street and Olney Avenue and providing shade for customers of the food trucks that line the street. It has survived two global pandemics, a couple of World Wars, and everything else that’s happened since 1901.

It doesn’t have a social media account, but if it did, the profile might look like this:

I’m in the Pennsylvania record books as a State Champion. I’m 58 feet tall – second to tallest – and my trunk, at 194 inches wide, is the largest in the state. At 120 years old, there’s no arguing my survival skills are elite. I’m also literally a genus. Haha!

The Tree of Heaven – genus Ailanthus, species altissima – anchors the Southeast corner of the Tabor Road Einstein employees’ parking lot. Last year, it was registered with the Champion Trees of Pennsylvania as the grandest of its kind in the state, and also with the Philadelphia Historical Society and Fairmount Park Commission. It is now officially a historical treasure that can’t be cut down without formal permission.

So how did the tree go from arboreal obscurity to botanical celebrity? Pure serendipity.

In 2017, Glenn Eck, head of the Grounds Department at Temple University, was driving home from work when a detour rerouted him past the corner of 13th and Olney. “I spotted the massive trunk of a very big tree out of my car window,” he says.

He circled the block to get a better look and realized it was a Tree of Heaven and “was easily the largest example I’d ever seen during 35 years of horticultural work.”

Eck subsequently returned to confirm his impression with measuring equipment, and then notified the Champion Tree Program, an offshoot of the Pennsylvania Forestry Association, of its existence. The program’s coordinator subsequently came on site to officially confirm the tree’s measurements. And so it was that Einstein’s tree was named to the list of state champions, the largest of its kind in the Commonwealth.

“We were very excited,” says John Sztenderowicz, Einstein’s Director of Engineering and Maintenance, when Eck informed him of the tree’s credentials.

The news prompted Einstein to inventory the other trees on campus, leading to the discovery of a Japanese maple that is 150 years old outside the Sheerr Building at 11th Street and Tabor Road. It was a sapling two years before Einstein relocated from its original site to Old York Road in 1873.

Once upon a time, the Tree of Heaven, a native of China, was “valued for its easy establishment, fast growth and ability to thrive in difficult growing conditions,” Eck says. “Unfortunately, the species proved a little too well adapted to growing conditions in North America.” Some of its seeds produced offspring on vacant land, displacing native trees.

Now it’s considered an invasive species, and so it’s rarely planted and often uprooted by landowners. That “makes large and long-lived examples of Tree of Heaven rather scarce,” Eck says. It’s unclear whether the tree at 13th and Olney was planted or randomly took root there.

The Tree of Heaven is also “one of spotted lanternflies’ favorite foods,” says Aaron Greenberg, state coordinator for the Champion Tree Program, referring to those relentless swarms of invasive winged pests that are the bane of trees in much of the state.

“I’ve been worried for that tree,” he says, “and I feared that Einstein would cut it down if it became infested.”

Einstein’s Sztenderowicz says that isn’t going to happen. “It’s a good shade tree,” he says. Einstein is “keeping a better eye on it” now that it’s achieved forestry fame.

On this Arbor Day and every day that could use the shade of a large tree, we celebrate Einstein’s very own Tree of Heaven.

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