US Founding Father Cleared of Importing Invasive Species

Posted August 1st, 2011 at 5:03 pm (UTC-4)

American founding father Benjamin Franklin was – among many things – a highly regarded scientist.

So it seems appropriate that it was science which proved him blameless in importing an invasive species of tree which has overrun thousands of acres of U.S. coastal prairie from Florida to East Texas.

While in London in the late 1700’s, it seems Ben was taken with the potential offered by the Chinese tallow tree.

Each of the tallow tree’s seeds is covered by a waxy, white tallow which can be processed to make much-needed items such as soap, candles and edible oil.

The fact that these trees tend to be quite bountiful, with each producing up to a half million seeds per year, added to its appeal.

So, Mr. Franklin packed up a batch of tree seeds and sent it back to his friends in the States for them to plant,  harvest and process.

Mr. Franklin couldn’t have known that the tallow trees would flourish in America, to the point where they’re spreading so fast that they’re destroying native habitats and causing economic damage.

Invasive Chinese tallow trees have overrun thousands of acres of tall grass coastal prairie on the US Gulf Coast. (Photo: Rice University)

Invasive Chinese tallow trees have overrun thousands of acres of tall grass coastal prairie on the US Gulf Coast. (Photo: Rice University)

To clear Franklin’s name in this matter, scientists from several U.S. universities conducted a genetic study of more than 1,000 Chinese tallow trees from China and the United States.

Scientists conducted hundreds of genetic scans of the leaves of all of those trees. They spent more than two years analyzing and correlating the results of those scans.

The team found that the tallow trees causing all of the problems along the Gulf Coast didn’t descend from the batch of seeds Ben Franklin imported after all.

It turns out that the troublesome trees sprouted from another bunch of tallow tree seeds which were brought to the U.S. by federal biologists around 1905.

According to the genetic evidence,  the trees in question might have descended from trees in eastern China, probably in the area around Shanghai.

The  study, which was published in American Journal of Botany, underscores how the introduction of non-native species of plant and animal life has become a serious economic, environmental problem throughout the world.

Watch a video on this study from Rice University:

Rick Pantaleo
Rick Pantaleo maintains the Science World blog and writes stories for VOA’s web and radio on a variety of science, technology and health topics. He also occasionally appears on various VOA programs to talk about the latest scientific news. Rick joined VOA in 1992 after a 20 year career in commercial broadcasting.

2 responses to “US Founding Father Cleared of Importing Invasive Species”

  1. Kimberly says:

    I’m guessing the incandescent light bulb, corn oil, and petroleum (used for making detergent) made the original intent for importing tallow tree seeds irrelevant. However, with the current concerns about petroleum, perhaps the invasive tallow trees are our bank account as a petroleum replacement for laundry and household cleaners, among other potential uses. If the oil is “healthy” (that is, high in vitamin E & other healthy compounds), then perhaps we should exploit its benefits to prevent Type II diabetes and heart disease. In other words, control an invasive species by harvesting it. It would certainly be more beneficial than attempting to eradicate it through use of harmful herbicides and/or manual pulling, the management techniques used to combat other invasives.

    I understand there has been some amount of success in managing invasive purple loosestrife by harvesting its seeds for the original purposes for which it was imported to New England. At least, it seems to be successful in the areas where farmers and bee keepers have worked together towards sustainable organic practices. In that case, too, developments made purple loosestrife defunct for medicinal purposes as originally used, but science has shown that it is effective as a cold remedy, without need of adding ephedrine or pseudoephedrine. It’s expensive, and probably not practical as a replacement for the multi-billion dollar pharmaceutical industry, but useful to control local plant populations.