Chinese tallow: Sapium sebiferum
Chinese tallow, a small to medium-sized tree native to China,
was introduced into the United States as an ornamental in the 18th
Look at first:
- open fruit capsules that look like popcorn
- seeds with a white waxy coating
- oval, aspen-like leaves
||Leaves: simple, alternate and broadly ovate,
3-6 cm (1-2.5 in) wide. Leaf blades pinnately veined and broadly
ovate, with broadly rounded bases. Petioles slender, mostly about
2-5 cm (1- 2 in.) long.
||Flowers: small, yellow, borne on spikes to 20
cm (8 in.) long, with 2-3 sepals (petals absent) and 2-3 stamens or
3 styles. Female flowers on lower spike, male flowers
||Fruits: a three-lobed capsule, 1 cm (0.5 in)
wide with one seed in each lobe. Dull white seeds are covered
with vegetable tallow, a white waxy coating.
In North and Central Florida, the tree has escaped cultivation
and has invaded closedcanopy forests, bottomland hardwood forests,
lakeshores and wetlands.
Established in the outer coastal plain of South Carolina and
adjacent North Carolina, south to Florida, and west to eastern
Texas. Native to Eastern Asia.
Chinese tallow, a deciduous tree to 16 mm (52 ft), has a fast
rate of growth maturing in 3-5 years. The tree flowers in spring,
sets fruit in late-summer and early fall with an average of 100,000
per tree. Seeds are bird-dispersed. Untreated stumps and roots can
Because of its
aggressive growth rate, never plant Chinese tallow trees. There are
native trees that provide shade and do not harm the environment.
Possession of Chinese tallow with the intent to sell, transport or
plant is illegal in Florida.
Insect herbivory on Chinese tallow is low in the U.S., and it
offers little food value for native species. Chinese tallow can
rapidly displace native vegetation in Florida wetlands by forming
dense monospecific stands. The trees may also increase nutrient
loading of aquatic systems through leaf drop and fast decay, which
may lead to much higher concentrations of phosphorus, potassium,
nitrates, zinc, manganese and iron in infested waterways. It is a
fast growing tree, and its foliage becomes yellow to red during the
fall. New growth on Chinese tallow begins as early as February and
flowering lasts from March through May. Fruit ripens from August to
November. The tree is deciduous, losing leaves during the autumn.
Young trees establish a taproot system and are able to withstand
extended periods of drought. Its primary seed vectors are birds
(pileated woodpeckers have been observed eating the seed) and
moving waters (tests show seed viability even after several weeks
of floating in water).
Why Chinese tallow must be managed
Chinese tallow is adaptable to growing in most soils from
moderately wet to dry, saline to fresh. It is now widespread in
Florida along roadside ditches, coastal areas and streams, often
forming dense thickets. It readily colonizes lowlying areas, and
also thrives in upland, better-drained areas in and near towns. It
can colonize open sites or invade closed-canopy forests. The rapid
growth and spread of this species represents a significant threat
to Florida's aquatic and upland environments.
tallow (Sapium sebiferum)
Image Credit: University of Florida, Center for Aquatic and Invasive Plants