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If you see these trees, report them to the Mississippi authorities

The Chinese tallow tree, or popcorn, can be beautiful this time of year. But it’s an invasive species that the Mississippi Foresty Commission is hoping to eradicate.
The Chinese tallow tree, or popcorn, can be beautiful this time of year. But it’s an invasive species that the Mississippi Foresty Commission is hoping to eradicate. Sun Herald file

Everybody loves popcorn, right? Depends.

If by popcorn, you mean the fluffy, buttery, salted puffs of popped corn that we gorge on at the movies, yes. If you mean the trees that produce seeds that look just like popcorn, not so much.

Popcorn trees, also known as Chinese tallow trees, or Triadica sebifera, are an invasive species in Mississippi and many other Southern states, from Texas to the Carolinas. In fact, the trees were imported decades ago from eastern Asia.

Now, the Mississippi Forestry Commission is trying to get a handle on just how many popcorn trees are in the state. An online map at https://helpstopthepop.com/tallowtree lets anyone report popcorn tree sightings throughout the state.

“It can be as few as one,” said Todd Matthews, MFC urban forestry and forest health coordinator. “Just one tree qualifies.”

A just-released public service announcement also addresses the popcorn tree problem.

Popcorn trees, or tallow trees, can be very pretty this time of year, with colorful leaves that can say “fall” more than most trees in South Mississippi. They’re fascinating to watch, as the fruit capsules change from green to brownish-black and the popcorn-like seeds spring out from the dark capsules.

So what’s so bad about them?

“They’re invasive, much like cogon grass or kudzu. They tend to take over and choke out the native vegetation, which is important to native wildlife. Their seeds are also toxic to animals and humans. They’re quite toxic to cattle. The birds eat them, but the problem with that is that the birds then scatter the seeds elsewhere, and these trees grow very easily,” Matthews said.

Their deceptive beauty is one reason tallow trees were brought to the United States, he said.

“Originally they were used in soap production, and then people started planting them as ornamental trees,” Matthews said. “They are very nice-looking trees, and people not only wanted them in their yards, they started using the seed pods in decorative ways.”

South Mississippi seems to have a wealth of popcorn trees, Matthews said. “I don’t know why, but down where y’all are, they’re all over the place, mostly around ditches and along old fence lines and along roads. Streams and ditches are good places to find them because that’s one way the seed travels, on water. I’ve seen them in nice yards that are kept up and mowed. But it becomes a problem for your neighbors because of the ways the seeds can be carried.”

At https://helpstopthepop.com/tallowtree , tap on the green “plus” symbol, which gets you to the Urban Forest Cloud. Follow the directions to report a popcorn tree sighting, and be as specific as possible, Matthews asked.

“We really need people to tell us as much as they can, especially how many tallow trees are in that spot,” he said.

The map isn’t just a cool way to see how many popcorn trees have popped up in Mississippi. Matthews said the state hopes to use the data “to get leverage for federal funding to attack this invasion. You know, this is just like warfare. You need to have a plan of attack, and you need to know where your enemy is to form a plan.”

UPDATE 09/25/2018: MRC has used the data gathered to get assistance from the U.S. Forest Service to help cities control the trees. Cities can apply at www.mfc.ms.gov/popcorn-tree-control-program. You can still report popcorn tree sightings at HelpStopThePop.com.

Watch as a litter of kittens pop out of the hollow trunk of one of the Live oaks on Washington Avenue in downtown Ocean Springs.

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