I am sorry to tell you that your friends are correct. Chinese tallow tree (Sapium sebiferum), or “popcorn tree,” is highly invasive and forms dense thickets that crowd out native species, destroying whole ecosystems. It was originally brought into the U.S. from Japan in 1776 as an ornamental landscape tree that was admired for its blazing red autumn foliage and pale gray fruit that dangles from its branches. Birds and other animals love snacking on the fruit and the tree quickly spread beyond garden boundaries. It is highly adaptable, growing in sun or shade and wet or dry sites. It now ranges all the way from North Carolina to Texas.
Unfortunately, there are a number of plants from foreign lands that started out as beloved garden specimens that are now wreaking havoc on our environment. All gardeners and lovers of nature should recognize and fulfill an obligation to make sure that we are not responsible for the introduction or further spread of a plant pest. While I am a great advocate for introducing new plant species, if I ever notice any signs of serious invasive potential it is off to the compost heap with them.
How about replacing your tallow tree with a native rusty blackhaw viburnum (Viburnum rufidulum)? It too has very attractive red autumn foliage, along with beautiful blue berries that are a great food source for birds. 

 

 

Darrin Duling is the director of Mercer Botanic Gardens in Humble. Send your questions to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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