Sure, Benjamin Franklin started the whole Chinese tallow tree thing in the U.S. when he sent a few seeds to friends in Georgia in 1772. But don’t blame him for the great Gulf Coast tallow invasion. Rice professor Evan Siemann and 2 other researchers found that the tallow trees crowding out what’s left of coastal prairie grassland from Florida to East Texas didn’t come from the seeds Franklin sent. The descendants of Franklin’s gift have stuck around an area of northern Georgia and southern South Carolina, according to genetic tests. Other tests traced the problem-causing tallows to seeds brought to the U.S. a little more than 100 years ago, likely from around Shanghai, by federal biologists.
The researchers also brought samples of the these trees back to China, and in controlled tests found the U.S. trees grew and spread much faster than the Chinese trees they descended from.
WHAT HAPPENS IF YOU DON’T GARDEN THE WILD Starting from her own back yard, Lisa Gray tracks the local Chinese tallow invasion: “They breed explosively — one tree pumps out around 10,000 seeds — and they grow much faster than trees native to Texas. In China, moths and other predators keep them in check. But here, native animals and insects don’t eat them, and neither will cattle. Grasslands, wetlands, established forests: Tallows devour them all.
Forget the Piney Woods. More likely, you’re in the Tallow Woods. Around here, if you leave a piece of land alone — don’t mow it, don’t burn it, just let it go — tallows will probably blanket it within 10 years. Within 20, you’ll have what ecologists call a ‘closed-canopy tallow forest,’ a single-species ecodisaster unfriendly to birds, bugs and animals. Drive from Houston to Galveston, and most of the woody areas you’ll see are covered in tallows. Around the Addicks and Barker reservoirs, the woods are almost all tallow.
According to the Texas Forest Service, Chinese tallows account for an astounding 23 percent of all trees in the eight-county Houston area.” [Houston Chronicle; previously on Swamplot]
“You are the first line of defense against these deceptively beautiful, but deadly invaders in our midst,” warns the Bellaire Examiner.
Who is this evil interloper? The Chinese Tallow Tree. Don’t get caught harboring one of these nasties on your property.
Yeah, it’s a bad tree. Because it takes over and forces out other plants, right?
Chinese tallow alters light availability for other plant species. Fallen tallow leaves contain toxins that create unfavorable soil conditions for native plant species. Chinese tallow will outcompete native plant species, reducing habitat for wildlife as well as forage areas for livestock.
This alarming description is from a website on invasive species put together by the Houston Advanced Research Center and the TCEQ’s Galveston Bay Estuary Program. But read carefully between the lines and you’ll realize that to the authors, the Chinese Tallow isn’t just an alien invader—it’s proof that Houston needs land-use controls:
Chinese tallow will transform native habitats into monospecific (single species) tallow forests in the absence of land management practices.
Do these folks realize what they’re advocating? Let’s hope they stick to gardening and stay out of urban planning. No telling what they’d do if they got hold of Houston’s development regulations.