Tallow trees as energy


July 3, 2008

As energy prices soar, one LSU professor is looking for a solution in a surprising source — the Chinese tallow tree, an invasive plant scorned by generations of Louisiana gardeners.

A native of China and Japan, the tree might have been introduced into North American colonies as early as the 1700s. In a letter to a friend in Georgia in 1772, Benjamin Franklin wrote: "I send also a few seeds of the Chinese Tallow Tree, which will I believe grow & thrive with you."

Poor Franklin probably had no idea just how much growing the tallow would do. Many gardeners and farmers have come to despise the tree because it spreads so quickly that it crowds out other species.

Since Franklin's recommendation, the only moderately nice thing we've ever heard about the Chinese tallow comes from Clair Brown's 1945 manual, "Louisiana Trees and Shrubs," where Brown curiously remarks that the "seeds are readily eaten by chickens." Alas, that is cold comfort to those of us without chickens, but plenty of tallows in our yards.

But LSU agronomist Gary Breitenbeck is leading a study of the potential economic benefit of the Chinese tallow, which produces a high-quality vegetable oil that has potential for conversion into biofuel.

The tree's most insidious qualities — it can grow in poor soil and runs rampant even when neglected — could be a strength for producers in search of cheap raw materials for biofuel.

We don't know whether the Chinese tallow's potential as a fuel source will pan out. But in the meantime, we're sure that more than a few gardeners and farmers will smile wryly at the thought of all those Chinese tallows meeting their demise in the cause of American energy independence.

We know of a few Chinese tallows in our own backyards that we'll gladly give to the effort.

Copyright 2008, Capital City Press, Baton Rouge, La.

From: "Tallow trees as energy," Editorial, The Advocate, Baton Rouge, La., July 3, 2008.  Reprinted in accordance with the "fair use" provision of Title 17 U.S.C. § 107 for a non-profit educational purpose.