Chinese Tallow Tree

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Tallow Tree

Chinese Tallow Tree

This tree is native to southern China, where a substantial industry once revolved around the harvesting and processing of its waxy seeds. They were thrown into boiling water to remove the wax, which was skimmed off and used to make candles. The seeds were then pressed to extract an oil for use in lamps, as a purgative, and for making oil-paper and soap. These days Chinese tallow tree is grown mostly as an ornamental, and it is one of the few deciduous trees to produce good autumn colour in areas with mild winters.

Plant details

Common name: Chinese tallow tree

Botanic name: Sapium sebiferum


This is a deciduous tree to around 8m (25′) tall with a medium domed crown. In autumn the mid-green leaves turn crimson, with some yellow, orange and ruby-red foliage. In November and December greenish yellow flower spikes appear on the tips of the branches, followed by 3-celled capsules. The fruit ripens and turns brown in autumn, then splits open to reveal three seeds which are covered with a layer of pure white wax.

Best climate

Chinese tallow tree grows from cool to subtropical zones. Grow in a warm sheltered microclimate in frost prone areas and protect trees when young.

Good points

beautiful orange, red, purple and yellow autumn foliage provides autumn colour in climates with mild winters good street tree or small tree for the home garden insect and disease free drought tolerant once established


like other members of the family Euphorbiaceae, the stems contain an irritant milky sap birds disperse the seeds, which germinate easily, sometimes in places where they are not wanted!


Chinese tallow tree will grow in most soils, but prefers a well-drained sandy loam enriched with organic matter. Water well until the tree becomes established. Plant in a warm sunny position for best autumn colour.

Getting started

Plants for sale are usually grown from seed and the colour of their autumn display will vary greatly. To make sure you know exactly how your tree will perform buy one in autumn. Chinese tallow trees are widely available at nurseries, or ask your nursery to order one for you. Prices range from $13 for a 200mm (8″) pot up to $700 for an advanced 200 litre tree 2.5m tall.

Further reading

‘The Garden Plants of China’ by Peter Valder, (1999). Florilegium, ISBN 1876314028, rrp $88.