University of FloridaSolutions for Your Life

Download PDF
Publication #ENH-741

Sapium sebiferum: Chinese Tallowtree1

Edward F. Gilman and Dennis G. Watson2


With oval, pointed, deciduous leaves and an oval, open canopy, Chinese tallowtree creates soft, dappled shade. The trunk normally dominates, snaking up through the crown sporting major limbs well spaced along the trunk. Enough light will penetrate to allow lawn grasses to thrive beneath this rapidly-growing, 30- to 35-foot-tall tree. Yellow, terminal flower spikes appear in spring and are followed by brown capsules which burst and fall off, leaving behind wax-coated, white, berrylike seeds, hence the common name, popcorn tree. These berries persist throughout the winter, even after the fluttering, heart-shaped leaves have turned gorgeous autumn shades of red, yellow or orange and have fallen. Tallowtree is one of the only reliable fall coloring trees for USDA hardiness zones 8b and 9a. The new growth in spring is red-tinged. The waxy coating on the seeds is extracted by the Chinese for use in candles and soap and the milky sap inside the twigs is poisonous.

Figure 1. 

Mature Sapium sebiferum: Chinese tallowtree


Ed Gilman, UF/IFAS

[Click thumbnail to enlarge.]

General Information

Scientific name: Sapium sebiferum
Pronunciation: SAY-pee-um suh-BIFF-er-um
Common name(s): Chinese tallowtree, popcorn tree, tallowtree
Family: Euphorbiaceae
USDA hardiness zones: 8A through 11 (Fig. 2)
Origin: not native to North America
Invasive potential: According to the UF/IFAS Assessment of the Status of Non-Native Plants in Florida's Natural Areas (Fox et al. 2005), Sapium sebiferm (Chinese tallow) is prohibited for use in Florida.
Uses: attracts butterflies
Availability: somewhat available, may have to go out of the region to find the tree

Figure 2. 


[Click thumbnail to enlarge.]


Height: 30 to 35 feet
Spread: 25 to 35 feet
Crown uniformity: irregular
Crown shape: oval
Crown density: moderate
Growth rate: fast
Texture: medium


Leaf arrangement: alternate (Fig. 3)
Leaf type: simple
Leaf margin: entire
Leaf shape: rhomboid, deltoid, ovate
Leaf venation: pinnate, reticulate, brachidodrome
Leaf type and persistence: deciduous
Leaf blade length: less than 2 inches, 2 to 4 inches
Leaf color: green
Fall color: red, orange, yellow
Fall characteristic: showy

Figure 3. 


[Click thumbnail to enlarge.]


Flower color: yellow
Flower characteristics: not showy


Fruit shape: round
Fruit length: .5 to 1 inch
Fruit covering: dry or hard
Fruit color: brown, white/gray
Fruit characteristics: attracts birds; showy; fruit/leaves a litter problem

Trunk and Branches

Trunk/bark/branches: branches droop; not showy; typically one trunk; thorns
Pruning requirement: needed for strong structure
Breakage: susceptible to breakage
Current year twig color: green
Current year twig thickness: thin
Wood specific gravity: unknown


Light requirement: full sun
Soil tolerances: clay; sand; loam; alkaline; acidic; extended flooding; well-drained
Drought tolerance: moderate
Aerosol salt tolerance: high


Roots: can form large surface roots
Winter interest: no
Outstanding tree: no
Ozone sensitivity: unknown
Verticillium wilt susceptibility: unknown
Pest resistance: free of serious pests and diseases

Use and Management

Chinese tallowtree is easily grown in full sun on a wide range of soils and is particularly drought-resistant and tolerant of compacted and wet soil. The abundant seeds create a multitude of unwanted volunteer seedlings. Roots tend to grow quite large near the soil surface and can be a nuisance in the lawn. There are places in Florida and in the Houston, Texas area where the tree has escaped cultivation and is invading native woodlands and the edge of wetlands. Therefore, use of this tree is not recommended! The wood is brittle and small to medium-sized branches often split from the tree as it grows to 15-years-old.

Propagation is by seed or cuttings.

Pests and Diseases

No pests or diseases of major concern.



This document is ENH-741, one of a series of the Environmental Horticulture Department, UF/IFAS Extension. Original publication date November 1993. Revised April 2007. Reviewed February 2014. Visit the EDIS website at


Edward F. Gilman, professor, Environmental Horticulture Department; and Dennis G. Watson, former associate professor, Agricultural Engineering Department, UF/IFAS Extension, Gainesville, FL 32611.

The Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (IFAS) is an Equal Opportunity Institution authorized to provide research, educational information and other services only to individuals and institutions that function with non-discrimination with respect to race, creed, color, religion, age, disability, sex, sexual orientation, marital status, national origin, political opinions or affiliations. For more information on obtaining other UF/IFAS Extension publications, contact your county's UF/IFAS Extension office.

U.S. Department of Agriculture, UF/IFAS Extension Service, University of Florida, IFAS, Florida A & M University Cooperative Extension Program, and Boards of County Commissioners Cooperating. Nick T. Place, dean for UF/IFAS Extension.