tallow tree

tallow tree

tallow tree: see spurge.
Triadica sebifera, also referred to as Sapium sebiferum, is commonly known as the Chinese tallow tree, Florida aspen and Gray Popcorn Tree. Introduced to the United States, the tree is native to eastern Asia, and is most commonly associated with eastern China, Taiwan, and Japan. In these regions, the waxy coating of the seeds is used for candle and soap making, and the leaves are used as herbal medicine to treat boils. The plant sap and leaves are reputed to be toxic, and decaying leaves from the plant are toxic to other species of plant. The specific epithets sebifera and sebiferum mean "wax-bearing" and refer to the vegetable tallow that coats the seeds.

It is useful in the production of biodiesel because it is the third most productive vegetable oil producing crop in the world, after algae and oil palm. This species is considered to be a noxious invader in the U.S.

Physical characteristics

The simple, deciduous leaves of this tree are alternate, broad rhombic to ovate in shape and have smooth edges, heart shaped and sometimes with an extended tail often resembling the bo tree, Ficus religiosa. The leaves are bright green in color and slightly paler underneath. They become bright yellows, oranges, purples and reds in the autumn. The tree is monoecious, producing male and female flowers on the same plant.

The waxy green leaves set off the clusters of greenish-yellow and white flowers at bloom time. The flowers occur in terminal spike-like inflorescences up to 20 cm long. Light green in color, these flowers are very conspicuous in the spring. Each pistillate (female) flower is solitary and has a three-lobed ovary, three styles, and no petals. They are located on short branches at the base of the spike. The staminate (male) flowers occur in clusters at the upper nodes of the inflorescence.

Fruits are three-lobed, three-valved capsules. As the capsules mature, their color changes from green to a brown-black. The capsule walls fall away and release three globose seeds with a white, tallow-containing covering. Seeds usually hang on the plants for several weeks. In North America, the flowers typically mature from April to June and the fruit ripens from September to October.

Range and habitat

The plant is found throughout the southern United States. It was introduced in colonial times and has become naturalized from South Carolina southward along the Atlantic and the entire Gulf coast, where it grows profusely along ditchbanks and dikes. It grows especially well in open fields and abandoned farmland, and along the edges of the Western Gulf coastal grasslands biome, sometimes forming pure stands. In the Houston area, Chinese tallowtrees account for a full 23 percent of all trees, more than any other tree species and is the only invasive tree species in the 14 most common species in the area. Herbivores and insects have a conditioned behavioral avoidance to eating the leaves of Chinese tallowtree, and this, rather than plant toxins, may be a reason for the success of the plant as an invasive.

The plant is sold in nurseries as an ornamental tree. It is not choosy about soil types or drainage, but will not grow in deep shade. It commonly grows all over Japan, and is reasonably hardy. It is prized for its abundant and often spectacular autumn foliage.


The wax of the seeds is harvested by placing the seeds in hot water, and skimming the surface of the water. Though other parts of the plant are toxic, the wax is not, and it can be used as a substitute for vegetable oil in cooking.

The nectar is also non-toxic, and it has become a major honey plant for beekeepers. The honey is not of high quality, being sold as bakery grade, but is produced copiously at a barren time of year, after most of the other spring bloom is done. In the Gulf coast states, beekeepers migrate with their honey bees to good tallow locations near the sea.

The tree is highly ornamental, fast growing and a good shade tree. It is especially noteworthy if grown in areas that have strong seasonal temperature ranges with the leaves becoming a multitude of colours rivalling maples in the autumn.


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