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The popcorn tree is native to eastern Asia and is most commonly associated with eastern China, Taiwan and Japan. In these regions, the waxy coating of the seeds is used for candle and soap making, and the leaves are used as herbal medicine to treat boils. The plant sap and leaves are reputed to be toxic, and decaying leaves from the plant are toxic to other species of plant. The specific epithets sebifera and sebiferum mean "wax-bearing" and refer to the vegetable tallow that coats the seeds.
The simple, deciduous leaves of this tree are alternate, broad rhombic to ovate in shape and have smooth edges, heart shaped and sometimes with an extended tail often resembling the bo tree, Ficus religiosa. The leaves are bright green in color and slightly paler underneath. They become bright yellows, oranges, purples and reds in the autumn. The tree is monoecious, producing male and female flowers on the same plant.
The waxy green leaves set off the clusters of greenish-yellow and white flowers at bloom time. The flowers occur in terminal spike-like inflorescences up to 20 cm long. Light green in color, these flowers are very conspicuous in the spring. Each pistillate (female) flower is solitary and has a three-lobed ovary, three styles, and no petals. They are located on short branches at the base of the spike. The staminate (male) flowers occur in clusters at the upper nodes of the inflorescence.
Fruits are three-lobed, three-valved capsules. As the capsules mature, their color changes from green to a brown-black. The capsule walls fall away and release three globose seeds with a white, tallow-containing covering. Seeds usually hang on the plants for several weeks. In North America, the flowers typically mature from April to June and the fruit ripens from September to October.
Unfortunately, popcorn trees are not native and are highly damaging species. According to the US Forest Service: Popcorn trees begin producing viable seed after only 3 years. They can spread by root fragments and cuttings, so are quick to invade after a hurricane. Just one popcorn tree can produce 100,000 seeds every year. Nearly all of these seeds are viable and can germinate even after several years. A mature stand can produce 4,500 kg of seeds per hectare per year. Trees remain productive for 100 years. Even one popcorn tree presents a danger of explosive expansion that can hurt local ecosystems. Popcorn trees should be removed from yards and public spaces as well. The trees are extremely hard to kill and freshly cut trees will sprout new leaves.
We carry a product called Tordon RTU that is highly effective for getting rid of unwanted trees or brush, including the highly invasive Popcorn Trees.