Triadica sebifera

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Chinese tallow
Chinese tallow tree
leaves and blossom buds
Scientific classification
Kingdom: Plantae
(unranked): Angiosperms
(unranked): Eudicots
(unranked): Rosids
Order: Malpighiales
Family: Euphorbiaceae
Subfamily: Euphorbioideae
Tribe: Hippomaneae
Subtribe: Hippomaninae
Genus: Triadica
Species: T. sebifera
Binomial name
Triadica sebifera
(L.) Small

Croton sebiferum L.
Sapium sebiferum (L.) Roxb.

Triadica sebifera, also known as Sapium sebiferum, is commonly known as the Chinese tallow tree, Florida aspen, chicken tree, gray popcorn tree,[1] and candleberry tree.[2] 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.[citation needed] This species is considered to be a noxious invader in parts of the southern U.S.[3]

Physical characteristics[edit]

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.

Seed pods

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[edit]

Range in the United States

The plant is found throughout the southern United States. Incorrectly thought to have been introduced in colonial times by Benjamin Franklin, the tree has become naturalized from North 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.[4] In the Houston area, Chinese tallow trees 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.[5] The Texas Department of Agriculture lists Chinese Tallow as one of the 24 most invasive plants, and includes Chinese Tallow in a list of Noxious and Invasive Plants which are illegal to sell, distribute or import into Texas.[6][7] Herbivores and insects have a conditioned behavioral avoidance to eating the leaves of Chinese tallow tree, and this, rather than plant toxins, may be a reason for the success of the plant as an invasive.[8]

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 tree is common in southeast Oklahoma as well, although it is not depicted on the map.


Sapium sebiferum in autumn, Japan

The seed's white waxy aril is used in soap making. The seed's inner oil is toxic but has industrial applications.

The nectar is non-toxic, and it has become a major honey plant for beekeepers. The honey is of high quality, and is produced copiously during the month of June, on the Gulf Coast. 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 rivaling maples in the autumn.

The tree grows well in urban areas, and is very good for "sidewalk holes" along busy roads with a lot of traffic where most trees will not grow well. It can provide shade to counter the heat island effect of mainly-concrete areas, as well as habitat for urban animals such as lizards and birds.

Invasive species[edit]

Unfortunately, the tallow tree is not native[where?] and is a highly damaging species. According to the US Forest Service: Tallow trees begin producing viable seed after only 3 years. They can spread by root fragments and cuttings, so are quick to invade after a hurricane. Just one tallow tree can produce 100,000 seeds every year. Nearly all of these seeds are viable and can germinate even after several years. A mature stand can produce 4,500 kg of seeds per hectare per year. Trees remain productive for 100 years. Even one tallow tree presents a danger of explosive expansion that can hurt local ecosystems. Tallow trees should be removed from yards and public spaces as well. The trees are extremely hard to kill and freshly cut trees will sprout new leaves. Chemicals aside, the best way to remove them is to remove all new sprouts and starve the tree of sunlight.


  1. ^ "Chinese Tallow Tree". Going Native. Retrieved 7 August 2011. 
  2. ^ "Triadica sebifera". Plant Conservation Alliance, Alien Plant Working Group. United States National Park Service. Retrieved 3 September 2012. 
  3. ^ [1]
  4. ^ CHINESE TALLOW TREE. United States Department of Agriculture and Natural Resources Conservation Service. Last accessed April 13, 2008.
  5. ^ Tree Population Characteristics. Houston's Regional Forest Report: A Report of Structure, Functions, and Values. U.S. Forest Service and the Texas Forest Service. Published October 24, 2005. Last accessed April 13, 2008.
  6. ^ , PLANTS Database: Invasive and Noxious Weeds. United States Department of Agriculture Natural Resources and Conservation Service, Texas Administrative Code. 2005. Quarantines and noxious plants, Chapter 19 (24 May 2006). State of Texas. Last accessed June 2, 2012.
  7. ^ Noxious and Invasive Plant List. Texas Administrative Code, Title 4, Part 1, Chapter 19, Subchapter T, Rule 19.300, , Last accessed June 2, 2012.
  8. ^ Constraints on the utilisation of the invasive Chinese tallow tree Sapium sebiferum by generalist native herbivores in coastal prairies. Richard A. Lankau1, William E. Rogers, and Evan Siemann, Ecological Entomology, Volume 29, p. 66-75. Published February 2004. Last accessed April 13, 2008.

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