Versatile Chinese Tallow Tree

Chinese tallow tree (Sapium sebiferum)

Just as every human being is a multi-faceted creation of immense — if not yet fully developed — potential, so it is with plants.

Take Chinese tallow tree, for example.  In 1772, Benjamin Franklin sent tallow seeds to an agronomist friend in Georgia since he thought the tree was suitable for a variety of purposes and growing it could be made into a profitable venture.  Franklin knew that the waxy substance that coats the seeds could be used for making soap, candles, and cooking oil.
It also turns out that honey from Chinese tallow flowers has a unique taste and the tree is widely exploited for honey production in the Southeast.  This is ironic since all parts of Chinese tallow tree — a member of the Euphorbia family of plants, those with the milky white sap, including poinsettia — are toxic.
Chinese tallow is found on the list of trees whose fall foliage turns color and, in my humble opinion, makes the most spectacular display among them.  The leaves of this arboreal masterpiece, you see, are luminescent.  It is as though they are lit from the inside by a power source that is electrical rather than botanical.  In any case, the effect is other worldly.  The cordate or heart-shaped form of Chinese tallow leaves will remind you of poplar, aspen, and — thanks to their elongated, tail-like leaf apexes — a Bodhi Tree (Ficus religiosa), as well.
A number of years ago, Chinese tallow trees (Triadeca sebifera or Sapium sebiferum) were planted on Ventura Boulevard in Studio City.  This is the time of year to appreciate them.  I have to admit that they are not the perfect tree.  Their roots rise above the soil surface.  Their shape is unpredictable since they are grown from seed, the genetic variability of which is enormous.  They also drop hard, oily fruit and seeds upon which you could easily slip, as I was informed by Lorraine Behr, writing from Glendale, several years ago.  The one Chinese tallow issue that is not encountered in Southern California is its invasiveness.  In wetter climates, from the Southeast to Northern California, it has gotten out of control in some areas and planting it is considered an environmental hazard unlike here since, due to our drier climate, it has stayed where it is planted and does not leap the garden fence.
Such reservations were expressed in an email I received from Carlton Colmenares as follows:   “To have redeeming comments made for a tree that is prone to brittle branches, is short-lived, a prolific reproducer, has nectar that produces dark, inferior honey, and will become invasive where there is some semblance of moist soil is irresponsible.”
I can imagine the reasoning that goes into planting Chinese tallow as a municipal tree.  Its mature height is only thirty feet, with a canopy that is only fifteen feet in diameter, but it does produce some shade.  The lustrous green foliage and long golden catkins are attractive in the spring, giving way to clusters of intriguing white seeds in summer (popcorn tree is another name for this species), and then finally you have a kaleidoscopic color change in the fall.  It is also compatible with smoggy air and is not prone to disease or insect infestation. Pruning is barely needed, if at all, on account of its airy growth habit.
Chinese tallow is not on anyone’s list of drought tolerant trees yet, planted as a street tree, where all of winter’s rain is trapped under the surrounding concrete and asphalt, it should never need watering after it has been growing for a couple of years.
Somehow, Chinese tallow trees remind me of Mexican fan palms.  These palms are similarly maintenance free, in their case on account of a ramrod straight growth habit and capacity for self-cleaning of dead fronds.  However, these same dead fronds will eventually fall at random from a great height, damaging vehicles parked below and, in addition, an abundance of their slippery seeds that cover sidewalks are a nuisance, too.  So, too, Chinese tallow trees drop their perilous seeds and grow disruptive roots.
As luck would have it, two more distinctively fall-colored local trees have troublesome roots.  One of these  is liquidambar (Liquidambar styraciflua) and the other is Bradford pear (Pyrus calleryana ‘Bradford’).  The foliage of liquidambar, like that of Chinese tallow, displays the classic spectrum of fall color — from gold to purple — while ‘Bradford’ pear favors burgundy in its foliar exhibition.  Another problem with ‘Bradford’ pear is its growth habit.  The development of limbs is such that too many of them grow out from a central point on the trunk.  These limbs are not strongly attached and tend to break off with the slightest provocation from the mildest wind or even when there is no wind at all.  ‘Bradford’ pears may be spotted on Victory Boulevard outside of Birmingham High School in Van Nuys.
If you want to be safe — speaking of manageable roots and limbs — with a moderately-sized tree whose leaves change color in the fall, go with crape myrtle (Lagerstroemia indica).  When shopping for a tree, do so during the fall season and select the specimen whose colors are most appealing to you.  If you are especially fond of gold, plant a ‘Modesto’ ash.  Admittedly, this rather smooth-trunked tree is sometimes plagued with leaf-curling aphids and Anthracnose fungus that burns leaf tips, but the golden fall foliar display is legendary.  Another show in gold is seen on the fan-shaped foliage of the ginkgo tree (Ginkgo biloba). If you go with ginkgo, make sure your tree is a male since female ginkgos produce malodorous — even if they are memory enhancing — fruit.
A female ginkgo is growing on Milbank Avenue just east of Gelson’s market in Sherman Oaks.
Getting back to the potential of the Chinese tallow tree, to say it is untapped would be both an understatement and a pun.  Of the 400,000 plant species on earth, Chinese tallow is in the top five in terms of potential biodiesel production per acre.  Those same slippery seeds that are hazardous on sidewalks are extremely rich in oil content, producing between 16 and 24 barrels of oil per acre of trees.
Tip of the Week:  One of the advantages of growing a Chinese tallow tree is that, if all you want is the beautiful color display without the seeds, you can do this through a procedure known as coppicing, where a mature tree is cut down to its stump.  Let’s say you want a moderately tall hedge of ten feet or so that turns color in the fall.  You just might want to choose Chinese tallow to do the job.  When your row of fast-growing, deciduous Chinese tallows are several years old and ten feet tall or taller, after the color show for that year is over and the leaves have fallen, cut the tree down to ground level.  Growth of the many suckers that emerge from the stump will reach ten feet or more the following year.  The following winter, coppice the tree again and do so annually for several decades before the vigor of the tree begins to wane.

2 thoughts on “Versatile Chinese Tallow Tree

  1. I disagree.
    To have redeeming comments made for a tree that is prone to brittle branches, short-lived, a prolific reproducer, has nectar that produces dark, inferior honey, and will become invasive where there is some semblance of moist soil is irresponsible. cCc

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