I used to feel like an underachiever on the Fourth of July.

Somehow my day of parade going, book reading, pool splashing, burger grilling and fireworks watching felt kind of, well, frivolous in the face of the eighteenth-century achievements of people like George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and – one of my own personal heroes – Benjamin Franklin: author, inventor, scientist, civic leader and statesman. A great man and a great thinker.

But we all make mistakes ... even Ben Franklin.

In 1772, Franklin brought to the colonies an ornamental tree with colorful autumn foliage that could grow in full sunlight or shade, withstand flooding or drought and produce wax-like berries used for making candles, soap and fuel. That same year, he wrote to Dr. Noble Wimberly Jones in Georgia:

"I send also a few seeds of the Chinese Tallow Tree, which will I believe grow & thrive with you. ‘Tis a most useful plant."

Benjamin Franklin National Memorial, Philadelphia The Benjamin Franklin National Memorial inside the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia. (Photo: MikeParker [CC BY-SA 2.0]/Flickr)

Today, Chinese tallow, also known as the popcorn tree has spread from South Carolina to Florida, and has wound its way west across the Gulf states to Texas. It is changing the southeastern U.S. coastal plain, crowding out native plants such as wax myrtle, American holly and cherry laurel.

On Ossabaw Island, off the coast of Savannah, marine scientist Amanda Wrona Meadows sees the habitat changing before her very eyes.

"Chinese tallow is a quick-spreading and fast-growing alien species that is choking out freshwater wetlands and replacing more favorable native plants in sand dunes and maritime forests,” said Dr. Wrona Meadows. “It is harming very critical habitat for the marine critters that we have come to know and love, like painted buntings, alligators, great blue herons, and federally endangered wood storks."

During a visit to the island for some tallow removal, I could see the path of the trees’ growth marching across the wetlands. It doesn’t take much to imagine how tallow could change what we find in our coastal forests, wetlands, and sand dunes.

"Small tallow seeds will sit – very patiently – in the canopy of the forest, waiting for that one spot of sunlight that they need to really spurt their growth," continued Dr. Wrona Meadows. "And once that canopy opens up and they find an opportunity to grow, they will do so very rapidly, robbing the native trees of sunlight, nutrients and water."

What can we do to stop the spread of invasive species including Chinese tallow?

  • DO educate yourself, friends and neighbors about invasive, non-native species. Learn how to identify them and how to remove them.
  • DO encourage your local gardening stores to carry native plants and use them for your landscaping. Get your local garden club to help!
  • DO remove them from your property. Seedlings should be continually pulled by hand before they reach seed-bearing maturity. When the leaves start to change color in the fall, larger trees should be cut to the ground and treated with herbicides. Re-treatment may be necessary.
  • DO plant native or noninvasive non-native trees in areas previously occupied by Chinese tallow. Tree species recommended that are similar in size to Chinese tallow include blackgum, maples, dogwood, and crape myrtles.
  • DO take care when buying products made from invasive species. For example, some wreaths are made of Chinese tallow; if you toss it into your backyard after the holidays, the berries on the wreath will sprout! Better yet, buy decorations made from native plants.
  • DO support your local conservation, State and Federal government organizations who are working hard to eradicate invasive species.

This Fourth, if you spot an invasive plant during a backyard barbeque, go easy on Ben Franklin. As he said, “Do not fear mistakes. You will know failure. Continue to reach out.”

Let’s amend that to “reach out … and yank it out.”

Kerry Crisley wrote this post for the Cool Green Science Blog and it appears here with permission. Crisley is associate director of strategic communications with an emphasis on marine work.

Fixing the 1 dumb thing Benjamin Franklin did
He was one of the brightest minds our nation has ever produced. But he made a big mistake, and the Nature Conservancy is trying to fix it.