Chinese tallow tree facts

What Is A Chinese Tallow Tree: How To Grow A Chinese Tallow Tree

If you have never heard of the Chinese tallow tree, you may well ask what it is. In this country, it’s seen as an ornamental shade tree, native to China and Japan, and popular for its spectacular fall color. In China, it’s cultivated for seed oil. For more Chinese tallow tree information, including tips on how to grow a Chinese tallow, read on.

What is a Chinese Tallow Tree?

Although Chinese tallow trees (Triadica sebifera) are becoming more popular in this country, not everyone has heard of them or seen them. This deciduous tree puts on a magnificent autumn display. Before the leaves drop in fall, they turn from green to beautiful shades of red, gold, orange and purple.

The tree can grow with a single trunk or will several trunks. It is an erect trunk, and the oval canopy is low and spreading. It can grow to 40 feet (12 m.) tall and almost as wide. It can shoot up at a rate of 3 feet (.9 m.) a year and can live up to 60 years.

Chinese tallow blossoms are small and yellow, borne on 8 inches (20 cm.) spikes. They attract bees and other insects and are followed by fruit, three-lobed capsules containing seeds covered with a white waxy coating.

According to Chinese tallow tree information, it grows in U.S. Department of Agriculture plant hardiness zones 8 through 10. It is a thirsty tree and Chinese tallow care includes regular and adequate irrigation.

How to Grow a Chinese Tallow

If attempting to grow a Chinese tallow, expect a moderate amount of maintenance. Plant the seedling in a sunny location, or at least one that gets partial sun.

Chinese tallow care involves providing regular water. The tree requires moist soil for fast growth. Don’t worry about the soil texture. The tree accepts clay, loam or sandy soil, although it prefers acidic pH to alkaline.

If you are concerned about Chinese tallow invasiveness, you are not alone. The tree reseeds readily in moist areas and is considered invasive in some regions. Good Chinese tallow care involves keeping your plant from spreading to neighbor’s yards or wild areas.

Chinese Tallow Tree

This tree is native to southern China, where a substantial industry once revolved around the harvesting and processing of its waxy seeds. They were thrown into boiling water to remove the wax, which was skimmed off and used to make candles. The seeds were then pressed to extract an oil for use in lamps, as a purgative, and for making oil-paper and soap. These days Chinese tallow tree is grown mostly as an ornamental, and it is one of the few deciduous trees to produce good autumn colour in areas with mild winters.

Plant details

Common name: Chinese tallow tree

Botanic name: Sapium sebiferum

This is a deciduous tree to around 8m (25′) tall with a medium domed crown. In autumn the mid-green leaves turn crimson, with some yellow, orange and ruby-red foliage. In November and December greenish yellow flower spikes appear on the tips of the branches, followed by 3-celled capsules. The fruit ripens and turns brown in autumn, then splits open to reveal three seeds which are covered with a layer of pure white wax.

Best climate

Chinese tallow tree grows from cool to subtropical zones. Grow in a warm sheltered microclimate in frost prone areas and protect trees when young.


Good points

beautiful orange, red, purple and yellow autumn foliage provides autumn colour in climates with mild winters good street tree or small tree for the home garden insect and disease free drought tolerant once established

Downside

like other members of the family Euphorbiaceae, the stems contain an irritant milky sap birds disperse the seeds, which germinate easily, sometimes in places where they are not wanted!

Care

Chinese tallow tree will grow in most soils, but prefers a well-drained sandy loam enriched with organic matter. Water well until the tree becomes established. Plant in a warm sunny position for best autumn colour.

Getting started

Plants for sale are usually grown from seed and the colour of their autumn display will vary greatly. To make sure you know exactly how your tree will perform buy one in autumn. Chinese tallow trees are widely available at nurseries, or ask your nursery to order one for you. Prices range from $13 for a 200mm (8″) pot up to $700 for an advanced 200 litre tree 2.5m tall.

Further reading

‘The Garden Plants of China’ by Peter Valder, (1999). Florilegium, ISBN 1876314028, rrp $88.

TexasInvasives.org – Home

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Invasive Plant Atlas of the US
NOTE: means species is on that list.

Triadica sebifera

Chinese tallow tree

Synonym(s): Croton sebiferum, Sapium sebiferum
Family: Euphorbiaceae (Spurge Family)
Duration and Habit: Perennial Tree

Additional Images

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Photographer: Chris Evans
Source: The University of Georgia, Bugwood.org

Description

Deciduous tree to 60 feet (18 m) in height and 3 feet (90 cm) in diameter, with ovalish- to rhomboid-shaped leaves, dangling yellowish spikes in spring yielding small clusters of three-lobed fruit that split to reveal popcorn-like seeds in fall and winter.

Native Lookalikes: Currently no information available here yet, or there are no native Texas species that could be confused with Chinese tallow tree.

Ecological Threat: Chinese tallow will transform native habitats into monospecific (single species) tallow forests in the absence of land management practices. Chinese tallow alters light availability for other plant species. Fallen tallow leaves contain toxins that create unfavorable soil conditions for native plant species. Chinese tallow will outcompete native plant species, reducing habitat for wildlife as well as forage areas for livestock.

Biology & Spread: Can reach reproductive age in as little as three years and prolifically produces seeds, which are readily transported by water and birds. Flowers mature March through May and fruit ripens August through November. Also propagates via cuttings, stumps, and roots.

History: Chinese tallowtree is native to China and Japan. It was introduced into the United States in the 1700?s in South Carolina. It was distributed in the Gulf Coast in the 1900?s by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in an attempt to establish a soap making industry.

U.S. Habitat: Invades stream banks, riverbanks, and wet areas like ditches as well as upland sites. Thrives in both freshwater and saline soils. Shade tolerant, flood tolerant, and allelopathic. Increasing widely through ornamental plantings. Spreading by bird- and water-dispersed seeds and colonizing by prolific surface root sprouts.

Distribution

U.S. Nativity: Introduced to U.S.

U.S. Present: AL, AR, FL, GA, LA, MS, NC, SC, TX

Distribution: Current distribution includes all of the Southeastern United States from Texas to Florida, North Carolina to Arkansas, and it was recently discovered in California.

Mapping

Invaders of Texas Map: Triadica sebifera
EDDMapS: Triadica sebifera
USDA Plants Texas County Map: Triadica sebifera

Invaders of Texas Observations

List All Observations of Triadica sebifera reported by Citizen Scientists

Native Alternatives

  • Cercis canadensis (eastern redbud)
  • Cercis canadensis var. mexicana (Mexican redbud)
  • Cercis canadensis var. texensis (Texas redbud)
  • Acer grandidentatum (bigtooth maple)
  • Acer negundo (boxelder)
  • Ulmus crassifolia (cedar elm)

Management

Apply a triclopyr herbicide to basal bark in late summer or early fall (such as 20% Garlon 4 in oil) or, for large trees, apply directly to the stump after cutting down the tree (use Rodeo for trees growing in water). Pull up seedlings by hand. Large land areas can be managed by mowing and the careful use of controlled burns.

USE PESTICIDES WISELY: ALWAYS READ THE ENTIRE PESTICIDE LABEL CAREFULLY, FOLLOW ALL MIXING AND APPLICATION INSTRUCTIONS AND WEAR ALL RECOMMENDED PERSONAL PROTECTIVE GEAR AND CLOTHING. CONTACT YOUR STATE DEPARTMENT OF AGRICULTURE FOR ANY ADDITIONAL PESTICIDE USE REQUIREMENTS, RESTRICTIONS OR RECOMMENDATIONS. MENTION OF PESTICIDE PRODUCTS ON THIS WEB SITE DOES NOT CONSTITUTE ENDORSEMENT OF ANY MATERIAL.

Text References

Online Resources

Miller, J.H. 2003. Nonnative invasive plants of southern forests: a field guide for identification and control. Gen. Tech. Rep. SRS-62. Asheville, NC: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Southern Research Station. 93 pp (USDA SRS).
The Quiet Invasion:A Guide to Invasive Plants of the Galveston Bay Area

Search Online

Google Search: Triadica sebifera
Google Images: Triadica sebifera
NatureServe Explorer: Triadica sebifera
USDA Plants: Triadica sebifera
Invasive Plant Atlas of the United States: Triadica sebifera
Bugwood Network Images: Triadica sebifera

Last Updated: 2007-11-08 by EEE

Chinese Tallow Tree – Invasive Plant

General Information

Figure 1. Chinese tallow tree is a once popular ornamental tree that now persists in our natural environments. Photo courtesy of Ronald F. Billings, Texas Forest Service, Bugwood.org.

Chinese tallow tree (Triadica sebifera (L.) Small) is a short-lived, fast growing tree native to eastern Asia (Figure 1) that has become naturalized through the southeastern U.S. from North Carolina to eastern Texas and in California.

Chinese tallow trees were originally introduced to the U.S. during the 1700s. Evidence indicates that it was brought as a source of oil for the soap industry.

  • Chinese tallow tree tolerates a wide range of environmental conditions.
  • It grows rapidly and is resistant to many pests, so that it quickly dominates sites.
  • It spreads rapidly by producing abundant seeds that are spread by birds and may lay dormant in the soil for up to five years before germinating.
  • Chinese tallow tree also spreads by sprouting from the roots, especially when the original stem is cut or top killed.

Where are Chinese tallow trees in Arkansas?

The Atlas of the Vascular Plants of Arkansas records Chinese tallow tree in 15 counties in Arkansas, and the USDA Plants Database adds an additional three counties to the list.

How to identify a Chinese tallow tree

Chinese tallow trees grow as a large shrub or a medium-height (but large diameter) tree – up to 60 feet (18 meters) tall and 3 feet (90 centimeters) diameter (Figure 2). The bark is light to dark gray and furrowed.

Brittle branches spread and support a crown of simple alternate leaves that range in size from 1.5 to 3.5 inches (3.8 to 8.9 cm) wide and approximately the same length. The leaf stalk is usually at least half as long as the leaf blade. Overall, leaves are nearly round to more or less kite shaped, base of the leaves is rounded, and the tip tapers to a short or long point (Figure 3). Leaves are hairless, medium green on top and slightly lighter green beneath. Leaf veins, especially the mid-vein, are lighter green on the upper surface. Leaf margins are not toothed. The leaves change to yellow, orange, or red in the fall (Figure 4).

Figure 2. Chinese tallow tree is a large shrub to medium tree with light to dark gray furrowed bark. Photo courtesy of Chris Evans, Illinois Wildlife Action Plan, Bugwood.org.Figure 3. Leaves of the Chinese tallow tree have a kite-shaped, often mildly asymmetric shape that tapers to a point at the tip of the leaf. Photo courtesy of Chris Evans, Illinois Wildlife Action Plan, Bugwood.org.Figure 4. Leaves of Chinese tallow tree change color to yellow, orange, or red in the fall. Photo courtesy of James H. Miller, USDA Forest Service, Bugwood.org.

Biology of Chinese tallow trees

Chinese tallow trees flower in the spring – typically April to June. The small greenish yellow flowers of the Chinese tallow tree have no petals, so they don’t look like typical flowers. They develop in catkins 2 to 8 inches (5 to 20 cm) long in the spring. Most trees produce one catkin per branch, but occasional trees produce more. Each catkin has a few separate female flowers, occurring at the base of the catkin with male flowers filling out the remainder (Figure 5).

Fruits develop as a ¾-inch (2 cm) diameter three-lobed capsule which matures in late summer (Figure 6). As the capsule matures and dries out (Figure 7), the outer shell splits open and ultimately falls off at maturity, leaving a cluster of three to four off-white waxy seeds (Figure 8). These seeds remain attached into the winter and give the tree one of its common names – popcorn tree. One tree can produce from 50,000 to 100,000 seeds with high rates of viability. Seeds are dispersed by a variety of birds and by environmental agents such as creeks or floods. Research indicates that they are viable in the soil for at least two years and potentially up to five years.

Figure 5. Chinese tallow tree flowers develop in catkins with a few female flowers at the base and male flowers filling out the remainder. Photo courtesy of Chuck Bargeron, University of Georgia, Bugwood.org.Figure 6. Chinese tallow tree produces clusters of ¾-inch (2 cm) diameter green fruits in the fall. Photo courtesy of Chris Evans, Illinois Wildlife Action Plan, Bugwood.org.Figure 7. As Chinese tallow tree fruits mature, the capsule wall dries and splits, revealing the seeds. Photo courtesy of James H. Miller, USDA Forest Service, Bugwood.org.

Stop the Spread of Chinese Tallow Tree

Figure 8. After the capsule walls fall off, the off-white seeds remain, giving the Chinese tallow tree its alternate name – popcorn tree. Photo courtesy of Joseph LaForest, University of Georgia, Bugwood.org.

Chinese tallow tree is difficult to control because it sprouts freely and produces abundant seed. Given sufficient time, it most likely will escape cultivation.

Non-chemical control

Chinese tallow tree can be controlled by cutting and removal if one is persistent. When a tallow tree is cut, it will resprout from the stump or roots. Successful removal depends on diligently checking for sprouts and removing those sprouts promptly. Biological control has been investigated, but few pathogens or pests attack the tree.

Chemical control

For most homeowners, herbicides present a better control option. Several herbicides including 2, 4-D, fosamine, hexazinone, imazapyr, metsulfuron, and triclopyr have proven effective. Depending on the herbicide and the size of the individual tree, application can be by basal bark application, cut stump treatment, hack-n-squirt, foliar spray, or soil application. Consult your county extension agent if you have questions about specific herbicide recommendations tailored to your situation.

As with all herbicides, misuse of these chemicals can cause tremendous environmental damage and can harm you. Read and follow all label directions, including personal protective equipment recommendations.

One of the most commonly used treatments for Chinese tallow tree is a basal bark application of the ester formulation of triclopyr. Most trees can be killed with a 15% solution using vegetable oil as a surfactant. This solution should be applied as a 6” (15 cm) wide band sprayed around the tree in the lower 2 feet (60 cm) of the trunk. A 20% solution might be required to kill larger trees.

A basal bark application may not be effective on large trees with thick bark. In those cases the tree may be cut and the stump treated with 50% solution of the ester formulation of triclopyr or a 10% solution of imazapyr. Note that imazapyr is persistent in the soil, so avoid overapplication. Glyphosate applied by hack-n-squirt will also provide good control of larger trees. Use an undiluted 4 lb / gallon (0.48 kg / liter) glyposate solution applied into frills spaced 2 to 3 inches (5 to 8 cm) apart around the tree trunk.

Let’s work together to stop the spread Chinese tallow tree in Arkansas.

Resources

Here are some additional resources to learn about Chinese tallow tree.

Web Sites

Natural Area Weeds: Chinese Tallow (Sapium sebiferum L.)

BugwoodWiki: Chinese Tallowtree – Triadica sebifera

Green Neighbors: Another Handsome Hazard: Chinese Tallow Tree

Invasive Plants of the Eastern United States: Tallowtree, Popcorntree

IPM in the South: Chinese Tallow tree Threatens Delta Forests

Documents

Chinese Tallowtree:

Chinese Tallow: Invading the Southeastern Coastal Plain

The Chinese Tallow Tree

Sapium sebiferum – Chinese Tallow

NATURAL AREA WEEDS: Chinese Tallow (Sapium sebiferum L.)

Chinese tallow

Triadica sebifera
Family: Euphorbiaceae

Natural History
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.

Images

Click on any thumbnail to see a photo. Use left and right arrows to navigate. Use “esc” to exit the lightbox.

Photo credit: Karan A. Rawlins
University of Georgia
Bugwood.org
Photo credit: Karan A. Rawlins
University of Georgia
Bugwood.org
Photo credit: James H. Miller
USDA Forest Service
Bugwood.org
Photo credit: Franklin Bonner
USFS (ret.)
Bugwood.org

Learn More

  • USDA Forest Service Fire Effects Information System (FEIS) – Triadica sebifera
  • Wikipedia
  • USDA/NRCS Fact Sheet

Chinese Tallow Tree

Identification

Gadirtha fusca adults have a wingspan of about 1.75 inches and a body length of about 0.75 inches. Adults (left) have brown and grey patterned forewings and light brown hindwings. Adults bear a resemblance to many noctuid moth species in the U.S. Detailed examination of morphological characters is necessary for accurate species-level identification. Caterpillars (right) feed on leaves.

Note: Photo of caterpillar by Michael Pogue

Life cycle

Adult moths lay pale, cylindrical eggs on newly developing leaves in the spring. Eggs overwinter and hatch in May. Larvae develop through 5 instars in about 15 days, causing extensive defoliation of trees, and then pupate underground. Adults emerge and disperse to find mates. Four to five generations can occur in a season in native ranges.

Feeding pattern

Larvae of G. fusca cause extensive damage to leaf tissues, completely defoliating trees, especially young saplings or those growing in shady conditions. Large quantities of frass (droppings) may indicate active larval feeding.

Note: Photo by Greg Wheeler.

Impact

Caterpillar feeding may reduce the size of an infestation over time by destruction of plant tissues and multiple generations may cause sapling mortality and significant reduction of biomass. Pre-release studies suggest that larval feeding may result in complete defoliation of seedlings and is highly specific to Chinese tallow, suggesting the moth may be an optimal candidate for suppression of Chinese tallow stands in the U.S.

Additional Resources

Impact of Chinese tallowtree to ecosystems

EDDMapS. 2018. Early Detection & Distribution Mapping System. (accessed on 25 April 2018).

Safety of biological control agents proposed for release

Invitation for public comment on the program to manage Chinese tallow with Biological Control

Peer-reviewed publications on Caloptilia triadicae. This insect already occurs in United States and it wasn’t part of a purposeful introduction.

Peer-reviewed publications on Bikasha collaris

Wheeler, G. S., Steininger, M. S., and S. Writght. 2017. Quarantine host range of Bikasha collaris, a potential biological control agent of Chinese tallowtree (Triadica sebifera) in North America. Entomologia Experimentalis et Applicata 163: 184-196.

Peer-reviewed publications on Gadirtha fusca

Peer-reviewed publications on agents rejected due to lack of host specificity

Author: Brittany Owens

Instructor: Dr. Rodrigo Diaz

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