Floridata Plant Encyclopedia

A Floridata Plant Profile 593 Sapium sebiferum

Common Names: Chinese tallow, popcorn tree Family: Euphorbiaceae (spurge Family)

leaves and fruit
The Chinese tallow tree has colorful autumn foliage and interesting fruit (burns like candle) but it is definitely a tree to avoid - don't plant it.


The Chinese tallow is a fast-growing deciduous tree with a rounded or conical crown and an open, airy look. It can get up to 40 ft (12.2 m) tall with a 20 ft (6.1 m) spread. The leaves are diamond shaped, abruptly pointed at the tip, and 2-3 in (5-7.6 cm) long. They flutter in the breeze like poplar leaves. In fall the leaves turn brilliant shades of scarlet, orange, yellow and maroon. The springtime flowers are in yellowish green catkins on the branch tips. The fruits are 3-lobed brown capsules that open to reveal three white, waxy seeds that resemble popcorn. Like most members of the spurge family, broken twigs and leaf stems exude a milky latex sap.


Chinese tallow, Sapium sebiferum, is native to China and Japan where it has been cultivated for its useful seeds and as an ornamental for more than a thousand years. It is said that Benjamin Franklin introduced Chinese tallow into the United States in 1776. Since then it has escaped from cultivation and is now an extremely invasive weed in much of the lower southeast and is currently expanding its range west and north through Texas and North Carolina. It is also considered a weed in Australia. It was planted as a street tree in California where it apparently has not yet become invasive, perhaps because of insufficient rainfall.


Chinese tallow tolerates almost any soil and can grow 5 ft (1.5 m) tall in its first year. Light: Full sun or partial shade. Moisture: Chinese tallow is only moderately drought tolerant; seedlings especially, need watering during dry periods. Hardiness: USDA Zones 8 - 11. Propagation: Chinese tallow seeds are spread by birds, and virtually all of them germinate somewhere. It also produces new shoots from the roots.
Chinese tallow tree
Homeowners often "adopt" stray popcorn tree seedlings and permit them to grow into adults that produce copious amounts of fruit that birds will consume, pooping seeds in all directions all of which will unfortunately germinate.


In the United States Chinese tallow has been grown as a shade tree and for its brilliant fall foliage. However, the plant is now known to be extremely invasive and should not be cultivated.


Chinese tallow seed capsules yield a wax (Chinese vegetable tallow) that is used to make soap and candles. An oil is extracted that is used as a lamp fuel and machine lubricant. In parts of the American southeast, decorative wreaths are made by stringing the popcorn-like seeds. Honeybees make a desirable light-colored honey from the flowers.


The USDA reports that: "Chinese tallow 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." The photo below shows a central Florida ditch from which at least half of the native vegetation has been displaced by tallow trees (with red autumn foliage).

tallow trees
This roadside ditch in Central Florida is choked with hundreds of Chinese tallow tree saplings (dark red foliage).

Chinese tallow begins producing seeds at three years of age and a mature tree can produce 100,000 seeds per year. It spreads also by suckering and cut stumps resprout readily.

Chinese tallow is a Red Alert pest plant in California (has the potential to spread explosively). The State of Florida lists Chinese tallow as a noxious weed and prohibits its introduction, movement or release.

To kill Chinese tallow, cut the tree down and immediately paint the stump with a triclopyr herbicide such as Brush-B-Gon, Garlon, Pathfinder, or Chopper. Results also can be obtained by spraying the bark in a 6 in (15 cm) - wide band all around the base of the trunk with one of the triclopyr herbicides.

Steve Christman 11/20/99; updated 10/12/03

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Sapium species profiled on Floridata:

Sapium sebiferum

( Chinese tallow, popcorn tree )

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