On a recent visit from friends from Texas I got some Texas Tallow Tree honey (thanks Robert and Monique!). Tallow Tree (Triadica sebifera) is also known as: Chinese tallow, Florida aspen, chicken tree, popcorn tree and candleberry tree. The “tallow” and “candle” names refer to the fact that the waxy coatings of the seeds can be used for candle and soap making. In fact, “sebifera” means “wax-bearing.” “Popcorn” describes the appearance of its seeds (see photo below showing the popcorn like seeds). “Chicken” refers to the fact that chickens like to eat the seeds. Furthermore, the leaves are similar in shape to the aspen, hence “Florida aspen.” The tree is native to China and Japan, hence the name “Chinese” tallow. The Tallow tree has been introduced into a number of countries. In the US it was introduced into South Carolina in 1776 by the French botanist Francois Michaux, and can now be found from North Carolina to California, mostly in warmer, southern states (see map below).
|Tallow Tree with "popcorn" seeds|
Tallow tree is an attractive shade tree with waxy, green, heart-shaped leaves that exhibit beautiful fall colors that rival maples in their yellows, oranges and scarlets (see photo below). It can grow to 60 feet in height and 30 feet in width and live to be 100 years old. It is the definition of hardy. It does well in a range of soil and light conditions. It likes warm temperatures but can withstand light frosts. It can also tolerate flooding, even saltwater flooding.
It is monoecious, producing male and female flowers on the same plant, and has an unusual flowering strategy, called dichogamy, that involves different flowering times and requires having at least two sub-populations. Dichogamy contributes to having a high genetic diversity within the same stand. The yellow or white, very sweet smelling, flowers occur within an inflorescence spike of up to 20 cm long (April-June). The flowers produce capsules that change from green to black (September-October). The capsule walls then fall away to expose white wax-covered seeds. These seeds stay on the tree for several weeks.
|Tallow Tree with yellow flowers|
Apart from its use as an ornamental tree, it has many other uses. The waxy, outer covering of seeds contains a solid fat known as Chinese vegetable tallow and the kernels produce stillingia oil. Candles and soap can be made from the tallow. In fact, the US Department of Agriculture introduced Tallow trees into some Gulf Coast states in the 1970s to establish a local soap making industry. Its kernel oil, which is a potential substitute for petroleum, is also used in machine oils and in making varnishes and paints. In addition a black dye can be made from its leaves, and its wood is suitable for furniture making and carving; its wood has been used to make blocks in Chinese printing. More recently the tree is thought to be a promising source of woody biomass that can be used for direct burning, or conversion to charcoal, ethanol or methanol.
|Map depicting Tallow Trees range |
(blue, green and pink- with pink showing areas of noxious growth)
While attractive and seemingly useful, it is also an extremely dangerous invasive species in the United States. It is listed by the Texas Department of Agriculture as one of the 24 most invasive plants and by the Nature Conservancy as one of “America’s Least Wanted- the Dirty Dozen.” It causes large-scale ecosystem modification by replacing native vegetation and by negatively altering soil conditions (related to the high level of tannins in its leaf litter). It has the potential to invade marshes, changing them from herbaceous to woody plant communities. In Texas it has produced large-scale conversion of upper coastal prairie to woodland, and is credited with the near extinction of the Attwater prairie chicken and a decline in grassland bird species due to loss of their habitat (the irony of chickens liking to eat the Tallow tree seeds is not lost on me). It has done so well that in Houston it makes up 23% of all trees, out-competing native vegetation and creating a monoculture in some areas. Not surprisingly, in Texas it is illegal to sell, distribute or import it.
|Tallow Tree showing fall colors and seeds|
The Tallow’s success is attributed to its high growth rate, high reproductive ability, and lack of herbaceous and insect predators or pathogenic organisms. Its leaves and sap are toxic keeping away most things that might harm it. Just touching it can cause dermatitis. As invasive plants go, it is in a class of its own with an incredible capacity to reproduce. A single tree can annually produce 100,000 seeds and seeds can remain dormant in soil for several years before sprouting. For a mature stand, this translates into upwards of 4,500 kilograms of seeds per hectare per year (yes, someone measured this)! Apart from seeds, it can also spread via root sprouts and it has a short generation time, meaning cut trees quickly regrow. Mechanical removal is only effective for small specimens. Tree stumps can re-sprout and root fragments can develop shoots. This all means that the Tallow tree spreads and takes hold quickly, and is a nightmare to get rid of. Only certain herbicides and serious fire seems to be able do the job. One Cajun is quoted as saying “You don’t kill Tallows, you just make them mad.” It probably speaks volumes that most of the information I found on the Tallow tree was about ways that have been tried, unsuccessfully, to kill it. In Florida and Louisiana it is classified as a noxious weed, which given the circumstances seems like an understatement. The take home message: don’t buy, plant or otherwise spread this tree.
As for honey production, though, it is a winner (a silver lining?). While the leaves and sap contain toxins the nectar does not and bees love it, yielding impressive amounts of honey per colony. Apiarists in Texas and Louisiana claim colony yields ranging from 35 to 200 lbs, with averages of 100 lbs.
The honey I have is from Walker Honey Farm in Rogers, Central Texas, a family business that started in 1930 by G.C. Clint Walker and currently run by Janice and Clint Walker. They’ve expanded in the last 80+ years into quite an impressive operation, now offering 20+ varieties of honey, beeswax candles, mead, specialty foods, soaps and beauty products, among other things.
|Tallow Tree honey|
The Tallow Tree honey that is distributed by Walker Honey Farms is, not surprisingly, from the Houston area. It is a warm brown color that has an herbal, grassy smell. It has crystallized since I got it with large crystals (like rock candy) at the bottom of the jar and a layer of thin honey on top. It has a rich, not to sweet and slightly bitter, herbal taste with a caramel, slight cinnamon, aftertaste. It is unusual and tasty and would be very nice in baking, on warm buttered toast or in hot cereal.
This is not the first honey I've reviewed that is from an invasive species (see my review of Brazilian Pepper honey). Is honey production a silver lining to a serious problem? I struggle with how I feel about the production of a quality honey from a species that is destroying certain ecosystems. I'd enjoy hearing your thoughts on the matter if you have a moment to leave a comment!