Team Tallow: Working to Keep Phinizy Free from Invasive Species
By Ruth Mead
Benjamin Franklin is revered as a rich contributor to American History, and although he did many wonderful things, his introduction of a handful of exotic species is not one we are thankful for. In 1776, he introduced the first Chinese Tallowtree (also known as Popcorntree) to South Carolina as a cash crop. The waxy coating on the seeds is used for candle and soap making. Tallow may also be useful in biodiesel production as it is one of the most productive vegetable oil producing crops in the world – producing 20 times more oil per acre than soybeans! Tallowtree was reintroduced to the Gulf Coast states in the early 1900’s, once again as a cash crop that never made it.
Tallowtree in the Southeastern USA is now listed as one of The Nature Conservancy’s “America’s Least Wanted – The Dirty Dozen”. It is highly invasive, crowding and out competing native species to the point where Tallowtree can become a monoculture in the landscape it invades. Tallowtree is a prolific reproducer. One tree is capable of producing 100,000 seeds every year, most of which remain viable for several years! They can become sexually mature at just 3 years old – meaning they can flower and produce seed. Not only are they prolific seed producers, but roots readily develop shoots and they re-sprout from stumps vigilantly! This tree is such a bad boy that the Texas Department of Agriculture lists it as a noxious and invasive species making it illegal to sell, distribute or import into Texas!
So what do Tallowtree and Phinizy Swamp Nature Park have in common? For over a hundred years the land which is now Phinizy Swamp Nature Park was heavily farmed making it a disturbed site – a site altered from its natural state. Invasive species are known to repopulate disturbed sites, and Phinizy Swamp is no stranger to invasive species – we have more than our share. When I (Ruth Mead, Senior Environmental Educator for Phinizy Center for Water Sciences) first discovered the Swamp in 2000, it appeared to be Tallow free. By 2004, the area known as the Sparrow Field was in the early stages of old field succession. I saw the first Tallows there and quickly pulled them up. Later more would appear and Lois Stacey, birding field trip leader for Augusta – Aiken Audubon and an accomplished naturalist, would help me in the effort to keep Phinizy Tallow free.
So why pick Tallow over all the other invasive species? I spent 14 years in north Florida and some time in coastal South Carolina. Both places are overrun by Tallowtree and it almost seems hopeless to fight it. Moving to Augusta at the end of 1999, I realized Tallow did not have a strong hold here. I guess at that point I thought we could actually win the battle, and I hope we still can.
As the Sparrow field grew up and I became immersed in field trip programs, I kind of let the battle with Tallow go. Several years ago, I was disappointed to discover it growing in the woods near Butler Creek near the Mayor’s Fish’n Hole, and I quickly pulled up all the trees I could find. During the annual River’s Alive cleanup in October of 2014, JP Moss (the youngest graduate of our Master Naturalist classes at Phinizy Swamp and rising freshman at Barry College) spent most of his time pulling up Tallow as opposed to picking up trash. It was truly a great river cleanup addition and admirable to see in a young naturalist.
Nothing could have made me happier than to have John Doughty, a recent graduate of our Master Naturalist class and talented nature printer, announce that he wanted to lead the Master Naturalist class on a Tallow removal at Phinizy. It brought new energy, so on May 21, five soldiers went to battle and Team Tallow was formed. We made great progress as you can see from the photos but we have a long way to go.
Team Tallow’s goal is to meet once a month and conquer Tallow – one tree at a time. Who knows – once we accomplish our goal, maybe we will go for another one of “America’s Least Wanted”! Team Tallow’s next meeting is June 17 from 7 to 10am. Come join us!
What can you do? Remove Tallowtree from your yard and encourage your neighbors to do the same. Avoid planting non-native species, especially those known to be invasive. Join the battle!