Chinese tallow (Sapium sebiferum) might be called the "north Florida melaleuca": like melaleuca, it's a tree that grows and spreads rapidly, is difficult to kill, and tends to take over large areas by out-competing native plants. Chinese tallow is spreading rampantly in large natural areas, including Paynes Prairie State Preserve near Gainesville, state-owned protected lands along the St. Johns River, and a park in Volusia County. It can thrive in well-drained uplands as well as in bottomlands, shores of waterbodies, and even on floating islands. It also is referred to as "Florida aspen" and "popcorn-tree", and continues to be sold in plant nurseries.
The plant was purposely introduced into the southeastern US as early as the 1700s. It comes from China where it has been cultivated for about 1,500 years as a seed-oil crop. In the US, it is primarily associated with ornamental landscapes. Chinese tallow has become naturalized in the southern coastal plain from South Carolina south to Florida and west to Texas.
Chinese tallow is a popular ornamental because of its fast growth and attractive foliage which becomes yellow to red in the fall and is resistant to pests. It is a small to medium-sized tree that grows to about 20 feet tall. Its leaves are simple, alternate, deciduous and as broad or broader than long. Leaf blades are pinnately-veined and broadly ovate, with broadly rounded bases. Apices are abruptly acuminate and margins are entire. Petioles are slender, mostly about 1-2 inches long. The inflorescences are very attractive to bees and other insects; they are relatively long branches (2-8 inches long) bearing small, stalked white flowers. The fruit is three-lobed with one seed in each lobe. Seeds are covered with vegetable tallow, a white waxy coating.