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Weed Alert!

Sapium sebiferum
(syn. Triadica sinensis)
(Chinese Tallowtree, Florida Aspen, Popcorn Tree)

Summary: known invaders sighted in new areas
We have found numerous Sapium sebiferum trees of various sizes, from saplings to young-mature trees, growing in native vegetation along the American River Parkway in Sacramento, California. This is the first documented report of this species in California. There is also an undocumented report of two trees growing along streams in Placer County, California. We have also found many plants in constructed wetlands in Yolo County, California. S. sebiferum is widely used in California, the southeastern coastal US, and other warm areas worldwide because of its interesting white fruit and attractive cottonwood-like foliage which turns red in the fall.

(Click on thumbnail images for a closer view)

Young tree


Young red leaves

Summer leaves


Unripe fruit

Ripe fruit
Sapium sebiferum is a deciduous tree up to 12 m (40 feet) tall. Its bark is thin to medium thick. It has simple, entire, petiolate leaves. The leave blades are up to 7 cm long, are reddish when immature and green at maturity. In the fall the foliage turns red. Each leaf is broadly ovate, like a cottonwood leaf, but ends in a long tip.
The sap is milky white, sticky, and may be a skin irritant. (This plant is in the Euphorbia family which includes many other toxic or unpalatable plants.)
In the spring yellow-green drooping catkins are produced. These mature into greenish fruit 1-1.5 cm in diameter which blacken and split in the fall. The black exterior often falls off the tree leaving the white, lobed seeds on the branches. Seed germinate readily.

Scientific and Common Names:
Sapium sebiferum (L.) Roxb. has a few spurious synonyms, such as "Croton sebiferum", "Stillingia sebifera", or "Excoecaria sebifera", but fortunately these invalid names are rarely used. Meanwhile, it may be that Sapium sebiferum (L.) Roxb. is an invalid synonym of Triadica sinensis (L.) Small--in any event the former name is much more widely used. The specific name "sebiferum" means wax-bearing. The common name "Chinese Tallowtree" refers to its 1500 year history of being used as a seed-oil crop in Asia, while "Popcorn Tree" refers to its persistent, white fruit.

Impacts and Considerations:
1)It is capable of invading wildland areas and rapidly replacing the natural communities with nearly monospecific stands of Sapium sebiferum. It is such an annoyance it has been called "Terrible Tallow" and the "Melaleuca of northern Florida" (Melaleuca is one of the most pernicious plant pests in Florida), and it has been included in The Nature Conservancy's list of The Dirty Dozen: America's Least Wanted.
2)Characteristic of woody invaders it grows rapidly, begins reproduction when young (i.e. only three years old), produces abundant viable seed, and can reproduce from cuttings.
3)Seed are spread by birds, and may also float for great distances.
4)Sapium sebiferum degrades the surrounding ecosystem by producing tannins and increasing the rate of eutrophication. It is unclear if it produces other allelopathic compounds.
5)The white sap may be a skin irritant or diarrhetic.
6)It is extremely popular among landscapers in the USA, Australia, and elsewhere, although it is becoming illegal to sell in some areas.

Native Range:
Sapium sebiferum is native to China.

Range As An Invader:
Sapium sebiferum was introduced to the USA in Charleston, South Carolina in the late 1700's. It has since spread to every coastal state from North Carolina to Texas, and inland to Arkansas. In Florida it occurs as far south as Tampa. It is most likely to spread to wildlands adjacent to or downstream from areas landscaped with Sapium sebiferum. It has been detected in California (along the American River, Sacramento County) and in wetlands in Yolo County.

As with all prolific invaders, the key is to prevent new infestations, or at least eradicate them out as soon as they begin.
1)Flooding is not effective. S. sebiferum seedlings tolerate brackish water or being inundated in fresh water, but cannot survive being inundated in brackish water (i.e. 1/2 sea water).
2)S. sebiferum is toxic to cattle, so grazing is not an alternative. Sheep and goats have been known to eat the leaves.
3)Biocontrols are not available.
4)Burning during the dormant season (December), followed by burning or mowing during the growing season (July-August) may be effective.
5)Mechanical control, such as cutting, does not help because plants resprout vigorously from the roots. Trees standing in water may be successfully killed by cutting them below the water line.
6)Triclopyr has been effective as a cut-stump treatment (Garlon 3a), or as a basal bark paint (Garlon 4). 11% triclopyr in oil controls trees up to 15 cm dbh, taller trees require a 20% solution. Apply herbicides during the spring to minimize seed spread (see next note). Frilling using glyphosate (Rodeo) has been ineffective, but painted-stump methods work well.
7)Reports from the Texas coast (Bergan, 1998) indicate that spring herbicide applications may not be successful, and that to translocate the herbicide into the plant most effectively late summer to early fall applications should be employed.

1)Anonymous, 1997, Vegetation Classification Scheme for TX-GAP, Texas Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit, USGS-BRD, http://www.tcru.ttu.edu/txgap/vegclass/index.html
2)Bergan, J. 1998, personal communication.
3)Bishop, D. 1998, personal communication.
4)Conway, W. 1997, Avian Behavior in Chinese Tallow Woodlands and Evaluating the Potential Control and Allelopathic Interferences of Chinese Tallow, Master's Thesis, Texas Tech University.
5)Johnson, S.R. 1997, The Effect of Growing-Season Removal of Top Growth on Chinese Tallow in Southwestern Louisiana, Restoration and Management Notes, 15, 195-196.
6)Jubinsky, G. 1995, Chinese Tallow (Sapium sebiferum), publication TSS-93-03, Florida Department of Environmental Protection, Bureau of Aquatic Plant Management, Tallahassee, Florida.
7)Rice, B., Robison, M., & Randall, J. 2000, Madrono, submitted.
8)Weiner, J. 1998, personal communication.

--Barry Rice/Wildland Invasive Species Team; October 1998

Updated January 2005
©The Nature Conservancy, 1998