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Texas by Nature

Battling Invasive Chinese Tallow Trees

Gulf Coast landowners' help needed to halt spread of invasive plant 

By Jay Harrod

Joyce Kilmer may have never seen “a poem as lovely as a tree,” but the American poet likely never saw the Chinese tallow tree overrun a coastal Texas ranch or choke native plants and animals out of a protected wildlife area.

Originally cultivated in China and Japan for the oils it produces, the trees were first introduced in the United States in the late 1800s. Since that time, the fast-growing, invasive has sprawled across the Gulf Coast from Florida to Texas, covering as much as 500,000 acres in Texas and Louisiana alone.

“Chinese tallow trees are one of the most pressing issues facing private landowners, coastal land managers and conservationists today,” said Jim Bergan, director of science for The Nature Conservancy of Texas. “In a matter of decades they can totally displace and drastically alter native habitat structure, especially tallgrass coastal prairie which is an almost extinct vegetation community. The result is a degraded landscape that can no longer support the historic wildlife populations once known to early Texas coastal settlers.”

Chinese tallow grows rapidly and deep into a wide range of soil types, and, once established, its proliferation sometimes appears unstoppable. They spread not only through their abundant seed delivery but also sprout new trees from their roots and stumps.

Due to the enormity of the problem, The Nature Conservancy recommends landowners think of their eradication goals in terms of a long-term, sustained campaign rather than a blazing skirmish. Included in the landowners’ arsenal are herbicides, which, in order to be successful, must be applied immediately following seed maturation and before leaf color change. In Texas, this window usually occurs between mid-July and mid-September.

Other options include mechanical treatment by root plowing and shredding. These techniques have been proven especially effective when undertaken in concert with a prescribed fire program and controlled flooding. Landowners are also encouraged to form Chinese tallow control cooperatives so that tallow across multiple ownerships can be controlled with a unified approach. These cooperatives can also qualify for specific federal funding to fight Chinese tallow. 

For more detailed information on Chinese tallow tree control and other land-stewardship issues, visit nature.org/texas.

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