The Chinese tallow (Sapium sebiferum), sometimes called chicken or popcorn tree, was introduced from China to the U.S. in Charleston, South Carolina, in the late eighteenth century by the French botanist Francois Michaux, though Ben Franklin frequently gets “credit.” The original intent was to develop a soap industry, based on the wax coating of the white seeds.
Tallows are extremely variable genetically. Have you noticed that some tallows will lose their leaves while other retain them? Some turn red and yellow while others are still green? Some have ripe seeds while others don’t? This extreme variability allows propagators to select trees with certain characteristics that are deemed desirable (such as amount of wax on the seeds) and, by artificially crossing them or collecting and planting their seeds, expand those characteristics in the orchard.
Even though seed production reached 10,000 lb per acre, the tallow orchard adventure failed because harvest by hand was not cost-effective. The abandoned orchards spread quickly and the tallow is now one of the most abundant trees along the Gulf and U.S. south Atlantic coasts. The rapid dispersal was due to the same features which presently endear tallows to the hearts of new home owners in the New Orleans area - tolerance of poor soils and rapid growth. The trees will grow virtually anywhere and may reach 40 feet tall within ten years. They are, however, quite messy, contantly dropping limbs, and short-lived (about 40 years). Tallows are herba non grata at the Nature Center since they grow much more rapidly than our native trees and thus out-compete and rapidly replace them.
November, however, is a period of truce between tallows and naturalists due to their lovely yellow, red, and purple leaves mixed with the brilliant white seeds which resemble popcorn and provide low preference food for birds. Tallows are also being used to stabilize banks in rapidly eroding wetlands. They are proving to be hardy in these environs and their roots hold the soil together.
Nevertheless, the leaves soon fall and the battle wages on. Tallows are very difficult to eliminate due to rapid growth of shoots from stumps. As a wise old cajun once said, “You don’t kill tallows, you just make them mad!”