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2014-03-06

- In The Wild - Chinese tallow - 'Leave the tree, take the honey'

By Judith Pannebaker BCC Editor

Let's begin with a 2006 observation by a gardener hailing from the western suburbs of Houston who characterized Chinese tallow online as "the absolute worst thing that ever happened to the ancient Katy Prairie of Texas." But wait, there's more ...
Known in the scientific community as Triadica sebifera and Sapium sebiferum, Chinese tallow is also called the popcorn tree, Florida aspen, chicken tree and candleberry tree. Whatever its moniker, however, the Texas Department of Agriculture urges Lone Star residents to give it a wide berth.
Despite its attractiveness, this tree is known for causing problems, such as noxious invasion of the southern United States - including Texas.
Small- to medium-sized, Chinese tallow ranges from 20 to 60 feet high and grows at a rapid clip; sports attractive fall colors of bright yellow, orange, purple and red; and resists damage by pests and diseases. Additionally, the deciduous trees have strong, deep taproots, which enable even upstarts to withstand droughts.
Its freely branching, heart-shaped leaves with pointed tips are arranged alternately on branches. The leaf tops are bright green with slightly paler undersides.
From April to June, Chinese tallow's flowers bloom as eight-inch spiky clusters of greenish-yellow and white blossoms that bees and other insects find tasty.
The fruit of the Chinese tallow ripens from August to November as a three-lobed capsule. The seeds are covered with a white waxy coating, resembling popcorn. Chinese tallow's leaves and fruit are toxic to cattle and cause nausea and vomiting in humans.
In the Houston area, this tree accounts for a full 23 percent of all trees - more than any other tree species. The Texas Department of Agriculture lists Chinese tallow as one of the 24 most invasive plants, and includes it in a list of noxious and invasive plants that are illegal to sell, distribute or import into Texas.
According to the United States Forest Service, this highly damaging tree species begins producing viable seed after only three years of growth. Additionally, the seeds invade a variety of habitats that range from swampy to saline waters, along roadsides and streams. Along the entire Gulf Coast, Chinese tallow grows profusely along banks of ditches and dikes, as well as along the edges of the Western Gulf coastal grasslands ecosystems, where it sometimes forms pure stands.
Also spread by root fragments and cuttings, Chinese tallow can invade quickly after a hurricane. Of the 100,000 seeds produced annually by just one tallow tree, nearly all are viable and can germinate - even after several years of dormancy. Additionally, tallow trees can remain productive for 100 years.
Because even one tallow tree's explosive expansion can hurt local ecosystems, they should be removed from yards and public spaces. Once Chinese tallow becomes established, native species are crowded out.
These trees are extremely hard to kill; even freshly cut Chinese tallow sprouts new leaves. Seedlings should be continually pulled by hand before they reach seed-bearing maturity. Mature trees should be cut down with a chain saw, making the final cut as close and as level to the ground as possible. This makes an herbicide application easier as well as prevent resprouting from the cut. Seedling trees can be mowed or disked when small. Burning is also very effective for both small and larger trees.
However, author Bob Thomas in his article titled "Truce with an Alien: A Brief Appreciation for Chinese Tallow" and written for the Loyola Center for Environmental Communications, Loyola University New Orleans reported: "As a wise old Cajun once said, "You don't kill tallows, you just make them mad'!"
On the bright side, however, the nectar is non-toxic, and Chinese tallow has become a major honey plant for beekeepers. The high-quality honey is produced copiously in June, along the Gulf Coast. In the Gulf Coast states, beekeepers migrate with their honeybees to good tallow locations near the sea.
However, to paraphrase Peter Clemenza from the 1972 film, "The Godfather": "Leave the Chinese tallow, take the honey."

(Sources: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Triadica_sebifera, plants.usda.gov, http://plants.ifas.ufl.edu/node/399, www.fs.fed.us/database/feis/plants/tree/triseb/all.html, ttp://texasinvasives.org/plant_database, www.loyno.edu/lucec/natural-history-writings and davesgarden.com)