Chinese Tallow

Sapium sebiferum



 What: Also known as popcorn tree, chicken tree, or the Florida aspen, it is a tree that grows in well drained uplands and bottom lands, along shores and on floating islands. It is often used as an ornamental plant because it grows quickly and turns yellow to red in the fall. It grows to about 20 feet in height. It has simple deciduous leaves, small white flowers and three-lobed fruit. More details

Originated from: China

How it arrived: It was imported in 1776 by Benjamin Franklin for use of its waxy tallow in soaps and candles. In the early 1900s it was introduced into the southeast as an attempt to establish a soap industry. Today it is used to make crude lamp oil, varnishes and paints. The wood may be used for furniture and incense.

It's spreading: From South Carolina to the tip of Florida and west to Texas. It is the most successful invader in the chenier woodlands of southwest Louisiana.

Damage: The Nature Conservancy has placed this plant on its "America's Least Wanted - the Dirty Dozen" list due to its ability to alter ecosystems. This means it poses a threat to native wildlife. It can invade marshy areas and convert them to woody vegetation.

Why it's a threat: Chinese tallow can invade a variety of habitats from swampy areas to slightly saline waters and from sun to shade. The plant produces up to 100,000 seeds that may be carried by birds, and so are easily spread. It may also live for weeks floating in water, and so can be dispersed great distances. It may also grow back from the stump or roots. Once established, it can crowd-out native species. They are also very difficult to kill. Also, the milky sap of the plant causes skin irritation. The leaves and fruit are toxic to cattle and cause nausea and vomiting in humans. The leaves produce allelopathic chemicals that change soil content and therefore makes the area uninhabitable to native species.

Control: This plant is virtually impossible to control. Prevention of its spread is the most important thing to be done.