Tree of Heaven and the Spotted Lanternfly



Juvenile spotted lanternfly (nymph) Photo by: Emelie Swackhamer,
Penn State University, Bugwood.org

Did you know that the invasive tree of heaven is the favorite host plant of the spotted lanternfly? It’s important to know the connection between these two species as they are quickly becoming a significant concern in our region.

The tree of heaven is native to China and was introduced to the United States in the late 1700s. It was initially valued as a fast-growing ornamental species that tolerates a wide range of site conditions. Despite the species commonly being sold through nurseries, it fell out of fashion due to its weedy nature and foul odor by the mid-1800s. The invasive species continued to spread and affect native ecosystems across most of the country.

Tree of heaven leaves, leaflets, and seed clusters.
Photo by: Chuck Bargeron, University of Georgia,
Bugwood.org
Trees can grow 80 feet or more in height and up to 6 feet in diameter. The bark is light brown to grey and resembles the skin of a cantaloupe. The leaves are pinnately compound, meaning they have a central stem with leaflets attached evenly on both sides. The leaves can range anywhere from 1 to 4 feet long and contain 10-40 leaflets. Seeds form on female plants as 1–2-inch twisted samara, or wings. The seeds form as clusters that usually remain on the trees through winter. All parts of the tree emit a strong, offensive odor, especially when crushed/broken, that has been compared to spoiled peanut butter.

The tree of heaven is a prolific seed producer, grows rapidly, and can quickly out compete native vegetation. Studies have shown that a single tree can produce up to 325,000 seeds per year. Once established, the trees also produce numerous suckers from the roots and resprout vigorously from cut stumps and root fragments. In addition, the trees produce an allelopathic toxin that prevents the establishment of other nearby plant species.      

The spotted lanternfly is an insect native to Asia that feeds on the sap of various plants, with a preference for the tree of heaven. This insect was accidentally introduced to the United States in 2014 and has quickly spread, now being found in 14 states. Although not yet widespread in Michigan, this invasive pest has the potential to damage our crops, trees, and landscapes, threatening our agricultural and native ecosystems.

Adult spotted lanternfly. Photo by: Lawrence Barringer,
Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture,
Bugwood.org
Adult lanternflies grow to be about 1 inch long and .5 inch wide. They have a black head and gray-brown forewings with black spots. When in flight, lanternflies display red hind wings with black spots, a white wedge in the middle of the wing, and a solid black wing tip. The abdomen is yellowish with black and white bands on the top and bottom.

The spotted lanternfly has been known to feed on over 100 different types of plants, including many agricultural crops such as soybeans and grapes, as well as several common forest and ornamental plants. The insects don’t consume the fruit or leaves on plants, but instead use specialized mouthparts to pierce the plants and suck sap from within. The sugary waste produced by this process can coat leaves and stems, which encourages mold growth and can impede photosynthesis. Due to the lanternflies appearing in such large numbers on a single plant, they can cause substantial damage and kill the plant.

Understanding the tree of heaven and its association with the spotted lanternfly is important in managing and controlling their populations. By identifying and removing this species of trees, we can disrupt the life cycle of the spotted lanternfly and reduce its impact on our environment. 

Contact our office for further information, or for help identifying these invasive species.

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