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This one kind of tree threatens South Mississippi forests

Horticulturally, the Popcorn tree is beautiful with its heart-shaped leaves that supply autumn color on the Coast and tassel flowers in the spring.
Horticulturally, the Popcorn tree is beautiful with its heart-shaped leaves that supply autumn color on the Coast and tassel flowers in the spring.

Chicken tree, Candleberry tree, Florida Aspen. Ever heard of them? You might know this tree best by its popular local name, the Popcorn tree, or more appropriately the Chinese Tallow.

Never has one imported tree so threatened the forests and coastal plains of Mississippi.

Yet, it is an agriculturally useful and horticulturally beautiful tree. It just doesn’t belong in Mississippi, or the Gulf South, or the United States, for that matter.

If finger pointing is correct, American statesman Benjamin Franklin is among the culprits to introduce this native Chinese tree around 1776, although some histories credit the first to the Carolinas.

The common name, Chinese Tallow tree, comes from the waxy tallow derived from the white covering of the seed used to make soap and candles, both important commodities in the 18th Century. That would by why Franklin and his Colonial ilk thought the tree worth importing.

As late as the early 20th century, the Foreign Plant Introduction Division of the U.S. Department of Agricultural mistakenly fell under the tallow tree’s spell. USDA encouraged planting the tree for local soap crops, and plant nurseries touted its seasonal beauty — attractive heart-shaped foliage, gorgeous autumnal leaves and interesting winter clusters of popcorn-like white berries.

I remember my Mom proudly planting a Popcorn tree when she landscaped our new house in Gulfport’s Bayou View in the mid-1960s. She was a savvy organic gardener, but in those days there were no whispers of “invasive.”

Making all the ‘bad’ plant lists

USDA and forestry services now know that the Popcorn tree is bad news. Although it was successfully cultivated in Japan and China for 14 centuries, it appears to face no enemies or diseases here so it just grows and spreads.

It’s a fast-reproducing tree that is changing the native landscape, especially in the South where at least nine states are now badly infected.

This tree has made The Nature’s Conservancy list of America’s Least Wanted, a dirty dozen of often innocently imported plant and animal species that cause large-scale ecosystem modifications. Among them are the zebra mussel that clog water intake pipes of cities and power plants, and the leafy purge, a plant that crowds out native grasses and reduces productivity of grazing land by 50 to 75 percent.

The Chinese Tallow is of particular concern to our Gulf region. Large parts of the Texas coastal prairie has been transformed from native grassland to Chinese Tallow woodland, and Mississippi and its neighbors are likewise threatened.

Crowd-sourcing to the rescue?

To combat the alarming spread of the Popcorn Tree, Mississippi Forestry Commission began Step 1 in a long-range plan to preserve this state’s native forests and coastal grasslands. Through a media campaign, MFC launched www.HelpStopThePop.com.

Last summer’s first press releases for the Help Stop The Popcorn tree campaign explain:

“Popcorn trees may look harmless, but they are one of the top 10 worst invasive weeds in Mississippi [spreading] like wildfire, overtaking native vegetation, damaging wildlife habitats and destroying nature’s balance.”

MFC, with help from a federal grant and Plan-it Geo (a geospatial and software technology firm specializing in urban forestry) has created a Web site that gets everyday Mississippians involved in what is popularly called crowd-sourcing. We, the people, can report where Popcorn Trees are and the data will be used in the future for eradication.

The program is new but at this point 2,625 Popcorn tree “spots” have been reported on www.HelpStopThePop.com, most of them in South Mississippi, even as far as the Natchez Trace. Note that a “spot” is acres not single trees, and at this point more than 5,403 invaded acres are reported.

Spreading ‘Stop The Pop’ message

Brighton Forester is MFC’s public relations director whose responsibility is to spread the HelpStopThePop word. As she recently explained:

“We hope to use the information gathered during the mapping and awareness campaign to pursue future federal grant funding for removal; however, since we are starting from scratch we have no idea how long that process may take or if our proposal would be approved by the federal government.”

Unknown government funding and timing is not helpful when the Popcorn Tree spread needs to be stopped in its tracks. That’s why MFC encourages the public to report sightings for future eradication, but the forestry commission also asks private landowners to plant no more, no matter how attractive they are. MFC encourages landowners to pursue Popcorn Tree removal on their own properties.

Chopping down an existing tree is not easy for those of us who love and respect Mother Nature’s leafy bounty. As might be expected, there is push-back from some who love their Popcorn Trees, but I have no doubt my mother would take a chain saw to her tree if she were still here.

Be forewarned: Getting rid of Popcorn trees takes persistence because stumps can re-sprout and prolific saplings pop up in unexpected and unwanted places. But for those who cherish the appearance and diversity of our native coastal habitat, persistence is important.

Kat Bergeron, a veteran feature writer specializing in Gulf Coast history and sense of place, is retired from the Sun Herald. She writes the Mississippi Coast Chronicles column as a freelance correspondent. Reach her at BergeronKat@gmail.com or at Southern Possum Tales, P.O. Box 33, Barboursville VA 22923.

Make a report

If you want to report infested areas or check the map, visit HelpStopThePop.com. If you want advice on how to remove Popcorn trees from your property, call Brighton Forester at 601-359-2821, or go to the Mississippi Forestry Commission site.

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