Chinese tallow is an ornamental tree with colorful autumn foliage that can survive full sunlight and shade, flooding, drought, and in some cases fire. To horticulturists this kind of tree sounds like a dream, but to ecologists, land managers, and land owners this kind of tree can be a nightmare, especially when it invades an area and takes over native vegetation. Chinese tallow (Triadica sebifera), a nonnative tree from China, is currently transforming the southeastern Coastal Plain.
Over the last 30 years, Chinese tallow has become a common tree in old fields and bottomland swamps of coastal Louisiana. Several studies at the U.S. Geological Survey's National Wetlands Research Center (NWRC), Lafayette, Louisiana, are aimed at understanding the factors that contribute to Chinese tallow growth, spread, and management.
When tallow invades, it eventually monopolizes an area, creating a forest without native animal or plant species.
This tree exhibits classic traits of most nonnative invaders: it is attractive so people want to distribute it, it has incredible resiliency, it grows quickly and in a variety of soils, and it is resistant to pests.
In the coastal prairie of Louisiana and Texas, Chinese tallow can grow up to 30 feet and shade out native sun-loving prairie species. The disappearing of prairie species is troublesome because less than 1% of original coastal prairie remains, and in Louisiana, less than 500 of the original 2.2 million acres still exist.
Tallow reproduces and grows quickly and can cause large-scale ecosystem modification (fig. 1). For example, when it completely replaces native vegetation, it has a negative effect on birds by degrading the habitat. Besides shading out grasses that cattle like to eat, it can also be potentially harmful to humans and animals because of its berries (fig. 2) and plant sap that contain toxins. There is some concern its leaves may shed toxins that change the soil chemistry and make it difficult for other plants to grow.
Additional Publication Details
USGS Numbered Series
Chinese Tallow: Invading the Southeastern Coastal Plain