Chinese tallow is an invasive tree species native to Japan and some provinces of central China. It was introduced into the United States on at least two separate occasions: in South Carolina in the late eighteenth century, and again in the Gulf Coast region in the first decade of the twentieth century. Chinese tallow is an ornamental tree with attractive fall foliage, and the waxy substance that covers its berries can be used to produce candles and soap.
Unfortunately, Chinese tallow adapted so well to its new environment that it is now a significant invasive species ranging from North Carolina to Texas, especially in wet forests and coastal prairies. Drought-resistant and difficult to control, it thrives in a variety of soil types, shade conditions, and hydrological regimes. Unlike many invasive plants, which often colonize disturbed areas such as roadsides and the edges of agricultural fields, Chinese tallow shows no apparent preference for disturbed areas and is capable of infesting intact forest areas. This ability makes it a species of particular concern.
Chinese tallow reaches maturity in as few as three years and can remain productive for six or more decades. A larger tree can produce 100,000 seeds, which can be spread by birds or dispersed in moving water. The trees grow rapidly to heights of 30 or more feet, shade out native grasses and tree seedlings, and establish single-species stands. Chinese tallow sap and berries are toxic to many animals, and decaying leaves may leach toxins into the soil that make it even more difficult for native plants to grow. Tallow leaf litter alters nutrient cycling on the forest floor of infested areas, which enhances populations of a non-native invertebrate while depressing native invertebrate species. Consequently, Chinese tallow can cause native habitat degradation and large-scale modification of ecosystems.
Because Chinese tallow is tolerant of periodic flooding and can survive saltwater inundation, it may out-compete native tree species such as baldcypress in the future. Flooding and saltwater intrusion in coastal areas is likely to become an increasingly important problem, as climate change leads to rising sea levels and an increased probability of storm surges along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts. Chinese tallow is also more tolerant of extreme drought conditions than many native trees, and as temperatures rise, it is likely to expand its range northward.
Simberloff, Daniel. 2000. Global climate change and introduced species in United States forests. Science of the Total Environment 262 (2000): 253-261.
“Chinese tallow.” Center for Aquatic and Invasive Plants, University of Florida/IFAS. Online at http://aquat1.ifas.ufl.edu/node/399.