The Chinese tallow tree (Sapium sebiferum - (L.) Roxb.), native to southern China, is an attractive deciduous tree most often grown for the hard tallow of its seeds used for soap, oil and biofuel. The tallow tree resembles an aspen and is grown as an ornamental because it is one of the few trees in warm climates to yield autumn leaves colored crimson, orange, yellow and ruby-red. You can burn its wood in your fireplace.
White tallow softwood has closed grains, making it useful to make blocks for Chinese printing and for carving. The wood is also used to make furniture, and its pleasant odor makes it useful for incense.
Tallow tree wood cut from the Texas Gulf Coast contains from 41 to 45 percent moisture. When it is dried adequately, tallow wood burns well in fireplaces. It burns rapidly and produces a lot of heat, an attribute of many softwoods used in fireplaces. It does not lead to creosote buildup. Texans who value its pleasant odor when burning have used it for barbecues.
Chinese tallow trees grow up to 40 feet tall. When you cut down a tallow tree, its stump and roots will produce new roots, an ability called coppicing. This means growers can harvest a tree and avoid waiting for it to regrow. Growers in Texas plantations plant tallow trees 2 feet apart and harvest 38.1 tons per hectare, or 2.47 acres, every four years. Under coppice management, 15-year-old stands produced 45 tons per hectare every four years. The wood can be used for firewood or converted into charcoal, ethanol and methanol or made into pellets.
The ability of tallow trees to coppice also makes them invasive. The species is wildly invasive on the Gulf Coast of the U.S., making Nature Conservancy's list of "America's Least Wanted -- The Dirty Dozen."
- World Environment Library: Sapium Sebeferum
- USDA Plant Guide: Chinese Tallow Tree
- Purdue University: Sapium sebiferum (L.) Roxb.
- Arizonaenergy.org: Chinese Tallow Tree
- Thebioenergysite.com: Wood Energy -- Use of the Forest Biomass for Wood Pellets
- Plantsforafuture.org: Sapium sebiferum - (L.)Roxb.
- Florida Exotic Pest Plant Council: Chinese Tallow Management Plan for Florida
A one-time farm boy, Richard Hoyt, holder of a PhD in American studies, is a former newspaper reporter, magazine writer and college professor. While writing 27 novels of suspense, he has lived on sugar cane, pepper and papaya plantations and helped keep bees in Belize.