Chinese tallow

Triadica sebifera
Family: Euphorbiaceae

Natural Historybrazilian pepper
Leaves of Chinese tallow
Photo credit: Chris Evans, Illinois Wildlife Action Plan, Bugwood.org

Chinese tallow, also called popcorn tree or vegetable tallow, is a non-native member of the Euphorbiaceae family (spurges). It was first imported from China in 1772, by Benjamin Franklin and has since invaded natural ecosystems throughout much of the Southeast. While primarily grown as an ornamental shade or street tree, tallow easily escapes captivity and rapidly takes over plant communities by producing many seeds and root-sprouts. It is tolerant of wet and dry conditions and even grows well in salty areas. The trees are also resistant to fire. (This plant is often still listed under the older scientific name of Sapium sebiferum.)

Habitat & Range

The Chinese tallow grows in subtropical to warm climates and now ranges from North Carolina to Florida and as far west as Texas. Chinese tallow grows well in a variety of soil types, but prefers a moist clay and peat mixture. It is tolerant of drought, floods and even salt. The trees may be found in low, moist areas, such as bottomland hardwood forests and swamp margins, or in open plains or roadside ditches. They are also seen in many urban settings.

Wildlife Use

Honeybees love the nectar of tallow flowers and songbirds eat the fruits and act as dispersers of the seeds. Tallow seeds have been fed to domestic fowl in parts of Asia.

Human Use

Chinese tallow has been grown in Asia as a source of vegetable tallow and for the oils and wax that are contained in its seeds. These are used in candle-making, soaps, lamp and machine oils and paints and varnishes. A black dye can also be produced from the trees. Tallow has been used by herbalists to treat skin ailments and as a purgative and tonic, however the seeds and fruit of the tree are poisonous to humans.  The wood of the Chinese tallow is white and close-grained. It is often used for carving and producing Chinese block art, as well as for furniture making.

Until recently, was sold in nurseries as an attractive ornamental, the Chinese tallow is now considered to be one of the greatest threats to natural ecosystems in the southeastern United States.


 

Identifying Characteristics

Size/Form: Chinese tallow is a small deciduous tree that averages from 30' to 50' in height, with a thin canopy that may be rounded or pyramidal. The trunk is often gnarled.
Leaves: The leaves are simple, alternately arranged and broadly ovate or triangular (rhombic). Leaves are 1 ½" to 3" long and have rounded leaf bases with two distinct glands and scale-like bracts where the petioles connect. The leaf tips are acuminate (slightly pointed) and margins are entire. Leaf surfaces are smooth (glabrous) above and below. The medium-green leaves turn bright orange and red in the autumn.
Twigs: Twigs may be either smooth or waxy (glaucous) and often show small brown lenticels.
Bark: The bark is light gray, with vertical fissures and flat ridges. The tree has toxic, milky-white sap.
Flowers: The flowers of Chinese tallow are attractive to bees and other insects and are borne in spikes roughly 8 inches long and appear from April to June. No petals are present but the sepals are yellowish-green.
Fruit: Tallow produces ½" brown capsules that split open to reveal large, white, waxy seeds. These may persist on the tree for several months, hence the nickname of popcorn tree.
Similar Trees on the Florida 4-H Forest Ecology Contest List:
  • Eastern cottonwood has a similar leaf shape, but the margin is wavy instead of straight.

 

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