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Tung Tree

Tung Nut Trees - Invasion by Invitation

Camp Salmen has a curious tree on its grounds, a Chinese invasive species called Tung (Aleurites fordii). These have large, roundish, flat leaves, some bigger than your hand. They are vaguely heart-shaped; the term “tung” supposedly means “heart” in Chinese. The tree also produces huge, green, golf-ball size nuts each year. People are always picking them up off the ground and asking - “What the heck are these?” Well, they’re poisonous, so don’t eat them.

Several young Tung grow in the shade along the Bayou Liberty Trail and we keep a fairly large specimen in the sunlight nearby, for old-times sake, for these trees have an interesting history.

On his journeys to the Far East in the 1200s the Italian trader Marco Polo was informed that the oil pressed from the nut of this tree was good for lamp lights, medicines and waterproofing various materials, even preserving the wood in ships. He brought it back to Europe where was indeed used as a wood preservative for centuries. Around WW I U. S. agronomists heavily promoted planting the tree as a way to keep recently logged Southern forest land in commerce. Industrial-scale cultivation, production and refining of the oil ensued. At the onset of WW II the material was in such great use it was declared a ”strategic commodity” as it was used for ship’s paints and waterproofing and lubricating ammunition. It also substituted the Chinese sources disrupted by the war. Federal subsidies allowed the industry to swell in size.

Unfortunately, some things that go up must come down. A combination of persistent winter frost & freezes and devastating hurricanes ruined Tung plantations across the Gulf South during the second half of the last century. The market also soured from foreign competition and the appearance of modern synthetic substitutes. The industry all but collapsed, save for a tiny demand by purists who still desired the products superior, and natural, wood preserving qualities. The once promising cash crop met an ignominious end by being categorized as an “exotic pest.” All that are left around these parts are remnants and refugees. They pop up here and there and shade out the natives but are fairly easy to control so we  left just a few for grins.

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