A Singular Focus on the Invasive Tallow Tree

The tamarisk tree is crowding out native cottonwoods in the Western US and young Joselyn Fenstermacher, at work on an Americorps crew, was doing battle against the invasive. That got her mother to thinking about invasives here and thus was born a crusade on Skidaway Island.

The Chinese tallow tree is considered a noxious invasive throughout the South. Florida and Mississippi have laws against planting them; South Carolina names them a severe threat; and Georgia lists them among the top 10 exotic pest plants. Skidaway Island has Ann Fenstermacher. Her one-woman crusade, begun in the footsteps of pioneers Nancy Crawford and Linda Sue Babcock, has become a small army of volunteers who uproot, cut down, slash and poison, or hack and squirt, every tallow they can identify.

Ann has partnered with Skidaway Audubon to network with Green Thumb and The Landings Club garden clubs, Boy Scout Troop 57, Landlovers, The Landings Club, The Landings Association, the State Park, the UGA Marine Institute, and the chainsaw wielding Tallow Terrors to help get rid of the fast-growing tree that was brought here originally by Ben Franklyn who hoped its waxy seed coating could be used as fuel. Today in Japan it is used for candle and soap making.

Under the heading of unintended consequences: the Chinese tallow uses more than its share of water and releases a toxic tannin that changes the chemistry of the soil around it, making it a threat to diversity of plant life and to water resources. Even the decaying leaves are toxic. And the seeds are reported to be viable for a hundred years. One reason Chinese tallows thrive here is that they are quick growers that do well in brackish water. Birds spread them by dropping the seeds — larger specimans can produce up to 100,000 a season. Insects and herbivores (read deer) avoid them.

Ann has walked many miles of The Landings to identify the trees and to band them in her signature orange tape. She created flyers to puts in tubes to alert homeowners to tallows on their property and has been welcomed by TLA and TLC to band trees for removal. The Tallow Terrors, an 18-person task force, followed in her footsteps on Magnolia and Marshwood on Mondays when the courses were closed throughout this winter, to cut down the 450 trees she’d marked in the fall, before they lost their leaves.

Now she’s at it again, orange tape in hand. This time on Association common property. And the Tallow Terrors are close behind. Ann is looking for volunteers to help identify trees. (598-4400)

In Spring, the heart-shaped waxy green leaves of the tallows, set off clusters of greenish-yellow and white flowers at bloom time. The flowers are very conspicuous, occurring in spike-like clusters up to 20 cm long. In Fall, the fruit capsule changes from green to brown-black and when they ripen, three spherical waxy white seeds are released, which usually hang on the tree for several weeks, hence the name “popcorn tree.”

Ann’s C.A.R.E. educational flyers, with closeup photos of seedlings, flowers and seed pods, have been widely distributed and will soon be available again at the Association office. C is for Chinese tallow, an aggressive non-native invasive; A is for alerting TLA of large trees on common property. R is for removing seedlings on site and cutting down large trees and applying herbicide and destroying fruit. E is for education, alerting neighbors and friends of this threat to diversity.

Now is the season when homeowners can easily pull the seedlings out by hand, before they reach seed-bearing maturity. When larger trees are removed, the stump cut should be as close to the ground as possible and as level as possible to make an herbicide application easier, as well as to prevent resprouting from the cut. No more than ½ hour should elapse between cutting and applying herbicide. Homeowners looking for permission to have trees over 20” in diameter taken down, tallow or other, must put in a Tree Removal Request with Public Works. While on your property, it’s a good time to ask these workers to look around for tallows.

Skidaway Island will never be rid of Chinese tallows, as Ann Fenstermacher will quickly note, but thanks to her focus on education and action, we will also never end up like Houston where tallows account for 23% of all trees – and counting. For her dedication to this singular effort since she arrived at The Landings in 2002, Ann received a 2011 Skidaway Audubon Environmental Stewardship Award.

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