What Happens If You Don’t Garden the Wild

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]

16 Comment

  • Nah, I haven’t seen them really take over forests, at least like the Piney Woods. The odd one around here might be 40 feet, but usually the ones in all those old cow pastures around Houston are more like 25 feet. 100 foot pines and 80 foot oaks, if kept reasonably intact, seem to keep the tallowtrees out to the fringes of the forest.

    Tallowtrees also don’t do so well if it’s too dry. Anyone seen them invade the land around San Antonio? Neither have I.

    They also aren’t going to take over ecosystems that are too wet or salty. Seen them in the marshes of Louisiana or Chambers County? Me neither.

    While it would be great to have native trees on all that (still) vacant land on the North and West Belt, that Chron article is a little heavy on the F.U.D.

  • The reality is that Chinese tallow, along with the Chinaberry, is invasive. And poisonous. And serves no real purpose.

    Sort of like the Houston Chronicle…

  • San Antonio and South Texas may not have tallow problems but they’ve got plenty of mesquite.

    And it’s invasive.

  • Oh No! The Tallows are coming! The Tallows are coming!

  • The tallows have been manipulating their seed currency to increase their exports. We need legislation.

  • I’ve heard it’s actually chemical warfare we have to fear, as tallows change the soil pH and keep natives from getting a start anywhere around their leaf-fall.
    The tree sure is pretty with glorious red leaves in autumn & pretty white berries at christmastime! But it’s just eye-candy. Unless a viable product can be made from it…

  • Oh PS, regarding this thread:

    Tallows are here exactly BECAUSE ‘We Garden the Wild,’ as ornamental specimens for landscapers.

  • @eiioi, the problem with tallow in East Texas is that once one of those bigger trees come down, the tallows sprout and grow like crazy, taking advantage of all that extra sunshine and beating all the other trees to it. The other trees never have a chance of growing in their rightful places. If you haven’t seen tallows in Chambers County, you maybe need a new set of glasses. They’re easy to ID from the road in the fall because they’re the ones responsible for all the orange, reds, and yellows.

    @Movocelot, the seeds are very waxy and burn easily. Maybe collect and sell them at campgrounds?

  • At least a few people want to use Chinese tallow as a biodiesel stock: http://www.biodieselnow.com/general_biodiesel_21/f/4/p/16044/122879.aspx

  • The wax that comes from the seed pods can be turned into oil. And I believe glycerine. The seed pods apparently are useful. And the flowers which produce a low-grade honey. The tree itself is not. The reason why it is resistant to insects and herbivores, things that eat leaves, is that the leaves are poisonous. I think the wood is too soft for any real use including firewood. If I recall correctly, it, or maybe it’s the real chinaberry, gives off noxious fumes when burned. And as noted, they leaves as they fall and decompose change the soil pH which kills off anything else.

    But no doubt some enterprising types will start planting tallows believing they will get rich off biodiesel production.

  • I begged the lady who remodeled the house next door to cut down the tallow on the property line, to no avail. I’ve long known the Chinese Tallow sucks, but I wasn’t aware of the leaves’ effect on soil pH. That explains a lot.

  • My parents had a big one when I was a kid. I loved that tree! It had everything a kid would want from a tree. Easy to climb, berries that made great slingshot ammo, pretty fall colors, shade in the summer. They finally cut it down when they decided to put in a carport and I really missed it. So it’s hard for me to get on board with the tallow hate. Kinda like how you always have a soft spot for your first love.

  • Numerous Chinese Tallows have been removed from my vast country estate. I have no interest in their origin or invasive but chose to eradicate them in favor of more stately Live Oak trees.

  • @eiioi

    The problem is not as pronounced in areas with pine dominated forests, since pines grow tall enough and quickly enough to shade out the pesky little tallows.

    However, the invasion is critical in areas that were historically tall grass prairie, such as from the northwest to the southwest of town. These once open grasslands are becoming monoculture forests (at least what is left of the once open grasslands). The Katy Prairie Conservancy, The Nature Conservancy, US Fish & Wildlife Service, and a few other conservation groups operate some critical wildlife preserves that are under severe attack from these trees.

    On a related note, I was in Dallas this weekend and while flipping through channels in the hotel room, I came across one of those Sunday morning suburban real estate infomercials where they showcase a single builder in one neighborhood that is under construction. During a testimonial from a recent homebuyer, the guy lauded the “acres of beautiful forests” surrounding his new home. As the camera panned the landscape, I saw nothing but 10 foot tall invasive mesquite trees as far as the eye could see.

    Seems like our Houston realtors should start cashing in on the “aesthetic value” of the “tallow forests” – especially emphasizing the “fall color” and its function as an “environmentally friendly privacy screen.” Most homebuyers would have no idea what they’re looking at. Carefully rewording reality is usually what realtors do on HAR, anyway!

  • eiioi said: “They also aren’t going to take over ecosystems that are too wet or salty. Seen them in the marshes of Louisiana or Chambers County? Me neither.”
    Joyce said: “If you haven’t seen tallows in Chambers County, you maybe need a new set of glasses.”
    While it’s possible to read my statement two different ways, I think it should be clear that I was talking about the marshes and areas with a lot of salt. THOSE areas of Chambers county. If you have any pictures of Tallowtrees in these places, please share them with the rest of us.
    The Chronicle article was trying to make it sound like no ecosystem was safe, but my point is that MOST ecosystems in Texas are safe. While it is a big problem in some areas, this article was way over the top.

  • @Superdave
    I agree re the tallow tree.
    However, I’m not sure I would call the Mesquite an invasive in Texas. I’m pretty sure most of the species here now are native.
    There were some things that helped make it more widespread, such as the beans being digested by cows make them germinate more easily (supposedly), but I think the mesquite has been with us for awhile.
    I wouldn’t call mesquite a forest of course. Forests have some shade. Mesquite trees provide about as much shade as the roof of a greenhouse.