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.
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: