Tree-of-Heaven. Photo courtesy of Washington State Noxious Weed Control Board)
Washington state agencies are urgently calling on the public to help identify and report an invasive tree called the tree-of-heaven in order to prevent the introduction of a harmful pest: the spotted lanternfly. If introduced into our ecosystem, the spotted lanternfly could cause irreversible damage to crops, forests, and native plants.
The Washington Invasive Species Council, Washington State Department of Agriculture, Washington State Noxious Weed Control Board and other agencies are asking citizens to keep an eye out for these two invasive species, and report sightings via the Washington Invasives mobile app or the council’s online reporting web page.
The tree-of-heaven, which can be found growing across Washington, is preferred by the spotted lanternfly for portions of its life. Officials are therefore tracking tree-of-heaven locations in order to assess risk, guide surveys, and eventually develop a spotted lanternfly action plan.
First seen in the United States in 2014, the spotted lanternfly has yet to be observed alive on the West Coast, but has been introduced to several Eastern states. It damages vegetation by secreting a sticky liquid called honeydew, which promotes mold growth and attracts other insects. Scientists estimate that the introduction of the spotted lanternfly could cost the Washington agricultural industry more than $3 billion every year, and the damage to forests and shade trees would further harm our environment.
Spotted lanternfly. Photo courtesy of Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture.
Interestingly, the tree-of-heaven has a unique connection to the City of Port Townsend. According to legend, in 1860, the son of a Chinese emperor was sailing to San Francisco when mid-Pacific storms blew his ship off course. The ship made it to Port Townsend, where the battered crew and passengers were received by friendly locals who repaired their ship and nursed them back to health. In gratitude, the captain presented the townspeople with a tree-of-heaven. A plaque detailing this story (and an alternate more racy version of the story) can be found on Washington Street, just east of the Port Townsend Post Office — and you’ll find plenty of tree-of-heaven specimens growing on the bluff there, too.
Today, unfortunately, the tree-of-heaven is classified as a class C noxious weed. In addition to being a preferred host for spotted lanternfly, the tree grows fast, forming thickets that crowd out native plants and change the chemistry of native soil.
A plaque telling the local legend of how tree-of-heaven arrived in Port Townsend can be found on Washington Street.
The tree-of-heaven can grow up to 60 feet tall, loses its leaves during winter, and has been described as having a “rancid peanut butter” or “popcorn” smell.
The spotted lanternfly is about one inch long, with black spots on light brown or gray wings and a distinct red and black pattern on its hind wings.
To learn more about tree-of-heaven and spotted lanternfly, including the risk the spotted lanternfly poses to Washington and how you can help make sure this invasive pest doesn’t find a new home in our state, join a free webinar on Monday, November 1, from 10 – 12:30 pm.
You can also read the recent news release from the Washington Invasive Species Council.