After Marco Polo returned from China, the western world became enamored with the spices, silk, spaghetti and other exotic products from that area.
The great reason for the explorations of Columbus, Magellan, Dias, da Gama and Balboa was to find water routes to Asia. They wanted the agricultural products: new plants to provide new crops, foods, spices and sources of income. Yes, Cortes, de Soto, Pizzaro, Ponce de Leon and Coronado focused on gold, silver and jewels, but the real gold was green — the Irish potato from Peru; coffee from Africa; white mulberry trees for silk production from China; cotton from Mexico, Peru and India; tomato from Peru; and corn from Mexico. The soybean from China was first grown at Bonaventure Plantation in Savannah.
Many more plants have traversed the world through trade, but you get the idea. Not all the imports were winners. Take kudzu, for example. No, please, take it.
Today, I’ll bash one of the less-stellar ideas of one of the most-brilliant men of North America, Ben Franklin. He was responsible for importing the Chinese tallow tree (Sapium sebiferum or Triadica sebifera (L.) Small depending on which taxonomist you follow) into the Colonies in 1776. The waxy coating had been used in China to produce soap and candles for at least 1,400 years, and it was put to this purpose in the rebel American Colonies. In the early 1900s, the U.S. Department of Agriculture promoted planting Chinese tallow in the Gulf Coast states to support a local soap industry. Seemed like a good idea at the time.
Now it is planted for autumn foliage. It also is very invasive. One tree can produce 100,000 seeds per year, which are eaten and spread by birds. The flowers look like popcorn, and that has given the plant its common local name. No, not the Redenbacher tree — the popcorn tree! While it is pretty in the fall, it is the bane of coastal ecologists. The tree crowds out native plants and alters the coastal plant communities. It has wreaked havoc on the dunes ecology of Sapelo Island. It destroys habitat for grassland birds. It outgrows oaks in either the sun or shade. Chinese tallow has earned a spot on the Nature Conservancy’s “America’s Least Wanted — The Dirty Dozen.” If you cut it down, it resprouts from the stump. If you cut it and let it lie, it inhibits seeds from native plants from sprouting. If you let it flower, the birds eat the seed and spread it 5 or 10 miles up the road. All it takes is one person with it in his backyard to ruin the ecology of half the county over the life of one tree.
Is it a difficult tree to eradicate? Absolutely! But it is a job we will regret not doing if we continue to kick this can down the road.
We are fighting and winning against cogongrass, but the horse is well out of the barn with Chinese tallow. Still, kill tallow when you get the chance. If you like hunting quail, grouse, turkey and dove, kill Chinese tallow on your hunting lands. If you like the dunes ecology of the barrier islands, volunteer to help the Department of Natural Resources fight back against this and other invasive plants and animals through the Coastal Georgia CISMA (Cooperative Invasive Species Management Area), led by Eamonn Leonard. He can be reached by emailing Eamonn.Leonard@dnr.state.ga.us or calling 912-262-3150. Leonard can use volunteers to control the plants directly, but funds or donations of herbicide also are needed.
If you have Chinese tallow on your property, a finish cut with a chainsaw should be followed within 15 minutes of making the finish cut with the appropriate herbicide. Garlon 4 can be applied to stumps less than 6 inches in diameter if it is mixed at a 10 percent rate in a basal oil. Stumps larger than 6 inches in diameter require 20 percent solutions of Garlon 4, Garlon 3A or glyphosate (Roundup).
Most herbaceous lawn weeds are killed by a 2 percent glyphosate solution; that the tallow tree takes 10 times as much herbicide to kill shows another aspect of why it is so difficult to control. For densely infested areas, an aerial application of Clearcast often is the preferred control strategy, and not just from a labor perspective. Aerial applications keep boot heels from crushing and trampling native plants we are trying to conserve and avoids the soil compaction that goes with foot traffic.
Then there are the diamondbacks out and about in the summer. Snake boots and chaps get downright uncomfortable above 90 degrees while carrying a backpack sprayer.
So would you maybe consider removing that tallow tree from your backyard?