Chinese Tallow Tree

Triadica sebifera (try-uh-DEE-kuh seb-EE-fer-uh)
Euphorbiaceae (yoo-for-bee-AY-see-ay)
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  • Angiosperm, Dicot, deciduous


  • Chinese Tallow is a deciduous tree that commonly grows to 30 feet tall and may reach heights of 50 feet.

Identifying Features:

  • Leaves
    • Alternate (one per node), with rounded bases and tapering to a slender point, resembling a heart-shape.
    • 1.5-3.5 inches long, 1.5-4 inches wide.
    • Margins are entire (without teeth).
    • The upper leaf surface is dark green and the lower is somewhat paler.
    • The veins are yellow and conspicuous on both surfaces.
    • In autumn, the leaves turn orange to scarlet and fall as the cold season approaches.
  • Petioles (leaf stalks)
    • Slender and approximately 1-4 inches long
  • Bark
    • Gray to whitish-gray with vertical cracks.


  • As the name of the plant suggests, Chinese Tallow originated from Eastern Asia, particularly central China.
  • It was introduced into the United States in 1776 by Benjamin Franklin, who once said, "I send also a few seeds of the Chinese Tallow Tree, which will I believe grow & thrive with you. 'Tis a most useful plant" (
  • Widely planted in the Gulf Coast states to promote local soap industry.
  • Though the optimal weather condition has caused problems with the invasive nature of the plants in the Gulf Coast states, in California, they are planted alongside the tree in order to provide shade and display its brilliant fall foliage.


  • Chinese Tallow is monoecious, meaning it has separate pollen and seed bearing flowers on the same plant
  • Flower--The flowers of Chinese Tallow are favored by honeybees which produce honey from it.
    • First appear during the late spring and matures during early summer.
    • The pollen producing (staminate) flowers is greenish-yellow borne on spikes up to 8 inches long, forming what's known as inflorescences, a flower cluster.
    • Each seed producing (pistillate) flowers, located at the base of the staminate spike, has a three-lobed ovary and three-style branches.
  • Fruit
    • First appear during autumn.
    • Often remain attached to the tree through the winter.
    • The fruits are three-lobed, three-valved capsule about 1/2 -3/4 inch long and about 3/4 inch wide, its color changes from green to nearly black.
    • When it finally matures, it falls off, revealing its seeds that have a white, tallow-containing covering.
    • White, waxy seeds resemble popcorn; therefore, it is otherwise known as the popcorn tree.
  • The plants have tremendous reproductive potential. According to researchers at Duke University, Tallow may reach reproductive age in mere three years and remain productive for 100 years! In other words, a mature tree annually produces an average of 100,000 seeds that are spread mainly by birds and water.

Water/Sun Requirements:

  • Optimal Weather Condition
    • Found in low, swampy places.
    • Along the margins of bodies of fresh water
    • Full sunlight or partial shade.
  • Though the plant may prosper at the following condition, it is very adaptable and can thrive in various environments It can tolerate periodic flooding, exposure to saltwater, and can become established in shaded areas as well as in dry uplands.

Special Adaptations:

  • The major dispersal methods of Chinese tallow are birds and water. Woodpeckers, cardinals, and many other species of birds consume and presumably disperse the seeds.
  • The Chinese variety has chemicals in its leaves that make them hard to digest.

Other Info:

  • It has been cultivated in China for at least 14 centuries as a seed crop and as an ornamental.
  • In Chinese medicine, the tree oil is used in small doses.
  • Its common name, Chinese tallow, comes from the "waxy tallow derived from the white covering of the seed that has been used historically to make soap and candles" (
  • The introduction of the plant to Gulf Coast states promoted establishment of local soap industry.
  • Because Chinese tallow has toxic properties, the ingestion of the plant can cause gastrointestinal upset and the contact with the plant can cause dermatitis.
  • Besides being toxic especially to herbivores, sheep and cattle, its rapid growth causes large-scale ecosystem modification by replacing the native vegetation and reducing the plant diversity.
  • Once the species are established, they are very hard to eliminate by current methods and their invasive nature poses a threat to Floridan vegetation. According to one study, Chinese tallow has become naturalized in over half, precisely 57 percent, of Florida's counties (
  • It is considered a weed in Australia.
  • "The incredible diversity of native plants in the coastal prairies is gone within 30 years after the Chinese tallow tree invades the area," said Siemann, assistant professor of ecology and evolutionary biology (

Reference Sources/Links:

Chinese Tallow Geographical Distribution in the US
Floridata Report on Chinese Tallow
Picture of Fall leaves
Science Daily Article on the invasiveness of Chinese Tallow
University of Florida Research on Chinese Tallow
USDA Plant Profile Page
USDA Plant Guide- in depth look at Chinese Tallow
This page is created by DJ S. 2007