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General: Spurge Family (Euphorbiaceae). Chinese tallow is a fast-growing, medium-sized tree that may reach heights of 50 feet (Godfrey 1988). This noxious plant causes large-scale ecosystem modification throughout the southeastern U.S. by replacing native vegetation. It quickly becomes the dominant plant in disturbed vacant lots, abandoned agricultural land, natural wet prairies, and bottomland forests. Once established, Chinese tallow is virtually impossible to eliminate.
Tallow leaves are alternate (one per node), with broad rhombic to ovate blades, 1.5-3.5 inches long, 1.5-4 inches wide, the leaf blade bases are wedge-shaped and the apex supports a gradually tapering appendage, 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 (sometimes yellow) and fall as the cold season approaches. The leaf stalks (petioles) are 1-4 inches long, with 2 swollen glands on the upper side immediately below the leaf blade. At the base of the petiole is a pair of stipule-like appendages about one-eighth inch long.
Chinese tallow trees are monoecious (i.e., an individual tree has separate pollen and seed bearing flowers). The pollen producing (staminate) flowers occur in greenish-yellow, tassel-like spikes up to 8 inches long that terminate the branchlets, and each flower cluster along the spike has a basal pair of nectar glands. A few seed producing (pistillate) flowers (each having a three lobed ovary and three style branches) are located on short branches at the base of the staminate spike. The pistillate flowers mature into three-lobed, three-valved capsules about 1/2 - 3/4 inch long and about 3/4 inch wide. As the capsules mature, their color changes from green to nearly black. When mature, the capsule walls fall away typically exposing three globose seeds that have a white, tallow-containing covering. Seeds usually persist on the plants for a period of weeks. Flowers typically mature April-June and fruit ripens in September-October.
Distribution: Chinese tallow is native to many provinces of central China, especially north of the Yangtze Valley, and Japan (Duke 1983). It has been cultivated for 14 centuries as a seed crop (Duke, 1983; Jubinsky & Anderson 1996) and is presently grown in mainland China, Hainan Island, Hong Kong, Japan, Taiwan, and Korea. Chinese tallow has been introduced to many parts of the world including Sri Lanka, Indochina, Bengal, India, Sudan, Martinique, southern United States, southern France, and Algeria (Duke 1983; Jubinsky & Anderson 1996).
Adaptation: Chinese tallow is naturalized in the United States from Cameron and Hidalgo counties in southernmost Texas northward to southern Oklahoma and northwestern Arkansas eastward to North Carolina and Florida. The species is very adaptable and can thrive in various environments. It is generally found in low, swampy places, and along the margins of bodies of fresh water; moreover, it can invade dry uplands as well, and it will tolerate some salinity. Tallow trees grow best in full sunlight but can tolerate shade. The spread of Chinese tallow appears to be limited by frigid and/or arid conditions (Jubinsky & Anderson 1966). Though widely planted as a street and ornamental tree in California, it has yet to become a pest there, presumably because of insufficient rainfall. For current U.S. distribution, please consult the Plant Profile page for this species on the PLANTS Web site.
Vectors: The major dispersal methods of Chinese tallow are birds and water (Duke 1983; Jones et al. 1989). Jubinsky (1993) observed seeds being consumed and dispersed by pileated woodpeckers (Dryocopus pileatus) and boat-tailed grackles (Quicalus major) in Florida. Cardinals (Cardinalis cardinalis), and probably many other species of birds, also consume and presumably disperse the seeds (Skinner 1998). Seeds were also observed along riverbanks in central and north Florida after heavy rains, once higher waters receded (Jubinsky & Anderson 1996).