Chinese tallow displays red fall color in North Florida. Photo: J_McConnell, UF/IFAS
In northwest Florida as we transition into fall, we don’t usually see a spectacular display of color change in the forest or our landscapes. Mixed in with the evergreen pines, oaks, and magnolias, we get sporadic spots of yellow and red from our native hickories, sweetgum, and sumac but otherwise it can be rather dull. It’s no wonder that people are reluctant to part with a blaze of red in their landscapes in the form of the invasive Chinese Tallow (Sapium sebiferum L. aka Triadica sebifera L.).
This fast growing, deciduous tree was initially introduced to the United States in 1776 by Benjamin Franklin. It was promoted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in the early 1900s for the potential to create a soap industry. It was planted as an ornamental because it grows quickly in nearly any type of site condition, has attractive white fruit, and red fall color. Unfortunately, over the years it spread into numerous states and habitats unchecked displacing native vegetation and disrupting wildlife food sources. Eventually, it was recognized as an invasive pest and is currently listed as a noxious weed in Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas.
Chinese Tallow is a prolific seed producer and is sexually mature as young as three years and may continue to produce viable seeds to the ripe age of 100. Although some birds eat the berries (part of the dispersal method), sap in the leaves and berries are poisonous to some other animals including cattle.
To prevent the continued spread of this plant, consider removing from your property and replacing with native species. Buy plants from reputable licensed nurseries with good weed management programs. Be able to recognize Chinese Tallow and do not accept plants from well-meaning gardeners who wish to share a foolproof shade tree!
With autumn fast approaching, many landowners are looking to add fall color to their landscapes. Unfortunately, many will choose tree varieties based on their fall foliage rather than the possibility of it being an invasive species. One tree that provides beautiful fall color is the Chinese Tallow tree (Sapium sebiferum (L.) also known as the Popcorn Tree.
Image Courtesy: Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, Division of Plant Industry
The Chinese Tallow is a fast growing deciduous tree. It can reach heights of 30 feet and its seeds resemble popcorn, hence the colloquial name. These popcorn shaped seeds, which can be spread by animals, and the root system sprouts make it very hard to control this non-native tree. It has spread to every coastal state from North Carolina to Texas, and as far inland as Arkansas. In Florida it has been found as far south as Tampa.
The Chinese Tallow was listed in Florida as a noxious weed in 1998, which means that possession with the intent to sell, transport, or plant is illegal in the State of Florida. Unfortunately, this invasive tree is still being found in home landscapes due to its ability to reproduce rapidly, create great shade and deliver beautiful, reddish fall leaves.
So even though the Chinese tallow has great fall foliage there are too many problems that come along with it to offer a recommendation. To read more on how to control Chinese tallow check out this fact sheet from the UF IFAS Center of Aquatic and Invasive Plants.
If fall color is important, there are many native species to choose from. To learn more about non-invasive native landscape plants with fall color, check out this publication on Florida native plants. It lists the Sweetgum, a native that is capable of producing great fall color.