Savannah, Georgia is no stranger to invasions. The first in its recorded history took place in 1733, when James Oglethorpe invaded Georgia, a colony named after the King of England and composed largely of freed debtors. His settlement would soon enough be invaded by Pirates and Spaniards, and much later by a blue-clad Union General by the name of Sherman. Another type of invasion – weather – brought Downey Trees to the area to stay in the wake of Hurricane Matthew in 2016.
Now there is a new kind of invasion around the marshes of Savannah – one that spreads out from there hundreds of miles both east and west. But this is not one of man, beast, nor weather: it is an invasion of plants, and it is both sinister and devastating!
The culprit is a tree, the Chinese Tallow tree or Popcorn tree (Triadeca sebifera, or Sapium sebiferum). Although it is widely documented that the tree was first introduced into this country by Benjamin Franklin, it was more likely the work of French Botanist Francois Andre Michaux, the son of Andre Michaux. The elder botanist extensively explored eastern North America and is credited with the early cultivation of exotic plants in his garden near Charleston, S.C. It is also thought that the early interest in the plant was for production of soap and candles from the waxy white covering of the seeds. The tree has been cultivated in China for this purpose for over 1400 years and was widely distributed for cultivation in the U.S. in the early 1900’s to start a soap industry in the South. Since that time the tree has largely been grown for its ornamental value: heart-shaped leaves that turn shades ranging from yellow to vivid red in the fall, a thin, airy canopy, and a plethora of fruit that turns to a waxy white when mature.
The tree has grown where it is supposed to – and where it isn’t! Chinese Tallow tree has a tremendous potential for reproduction. Each of the abundant fruits on the tree produce 3-4 seeds. These remain on the tree through the winter after the outer shell of the fruit splits giving the appearance of popcorn in the canopy and hence the alternate common name of “Popcorn Tree”. A tree as young as 3 years old may begin a fruiting period that can last to age 100! A mature plant may produce 100,000 seeds! Birds love them and are therefore expert at distribution. Whether they drop on wet ground, dry ground, or in the water for further distribution, the tree is adaptable to a wide variety of conditions and the seeds are viable for up to 5 years. They therefore readily sprout where they are planted. Tallow tree has rapidly altered natural landscapes all along the southeastern Atlantic coast and the Gulf Coast from Florida to Texas. The native vegetation of wetlands and bottomland forests are replaced by dense thickets of Chinese Tallow tree with a resulting loss of native plant diversity. No effective method of mass eradication of the tree has been devised, nor are there any natural pests to limit its spread.
However, just like Oglethorpe’s troops that turned back an invasion of Spaniards in 1743, there is a group of hardy individuals in Savannah fighting this new invasion: enter the Tallow Terrors of Savannah, Georgia! This is a team of volunteers that search out and remove the invasive trees. The Tallow Terrors are a product of the Skidaway Audubon Tallow Tree Removal Project that was initiated in 2007 by resident volunteer Ann Fenstermacher to “protect the beautiful maritime Forest of Skidway Island”. Two years later, the Tallow Terrors were formed, headed by Don McCulloch. They are motivated by the claim from the Nature Conservancy that the Chinese Tallow tree is one of the nation’s 10 worst alien plant invaders, and that of the Georgia Wildlife Federation calling out the tree as one of the greatest threats to habitat in South Georgia. Their seek and destroy operation is composed of a contingent of volunteers slashing the trees with chainsaws and applying herbicide to the cut stumps. They may be found combing the wetlands and natural areas of Skidaway Island outside of Savannah on most Monday mornings. They will also remove Tallow trees on private property at no charge. The entire community is encouraged to play a part in turning back the Tallow tree invasion: residents are encouraged to pull seedlings if they can, but not to cut trees on their own, but rather to report the tree or trees to the organization. If the trees are cut but no herbicide is applied, the tree will simply re-grow.
Downey Trees (our Savannah Branch operates under the name Evergreen Tree) encountered the Tallow Terrors while doing other tree work on the property of a customer. The property contained a Tallow tree that was too large for them to remove, so the Evergreen Tree crew caught the spirit of the Tallow Tree Removal Project, removing the tree at no charge. The accompanying photos show how Robert, Caleb, and Brian from “Team Evergreen” made quick work of the tree. For its effort, Evergreen Tree removed the potential production of thousands of tree seedlings of the invasive plant. Additionally, the Evergreen Crew assisted the Tallow Terrors in the achievement of a record by assisting with this removal: the felling of their 50,000th Tallow tree in their 10th year of operation! The Tallow Tree Removal Project was recently recognized by the Georgia Tree Council as an Outstanding Civic Organization. The Georgia Tree Council is a statewide organization composed of Governmental agencies, Municipalities, Tree growers, and Tree Care companies dedicated to the preservation and management of trees in the state.
Our congratulations and thanks go out to the Tallow Terrors, the Tallow Tree Removal Project, and Skidaway Audubon for a noble fight against the Chinese Tallow tree and the milestone achievement of 50,000 pest trees removed! The staff of Evergreen Tree (Downey Trees, Savannah) is gratified to have played a small role in thwarting this most recent invasion in Savannah!