Tung Oil Trees Are Part of Southeast Louisiana’s History and Present

(News article for December 2, 2023; edited)

I grew up hearing about tung trees. Particularly, I learned that much of the land in St. Tammany Parish on which Money Hill golf community and the Whippoorwill Grove subdivision now exist was once planted in tung trees.

The tung oil tree (Vernicia fordii, formerly Aleurites fordii) is native to parts of China and southeast Asia. Oil from tung seeds has been used in varnishes, paints, and other products.

Tung tree cultivation took off in southeastern Louisiana and south Mississippi in the 1930s, as trees were planted on land where pine trees had once grown. By 1950, approximately 874 Louisiana farms grew them. A number of tung-related companies existed in the Florida Parishes and New Orleans. Washington Parish had several mills for processing tung fruit. (I’m using the term “fruit” in the botanical sense. It definitely should not be eaten.)

The Bogalusa Post Office once housed the US Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) US Field Laboratory for Tung Investigations, and both USDA and Mississippi State University had tung research facilities in Pearl River County, MS.

Tung cultivation in southeastern Louisiana continued through the 1960s. Hurricane Camille, in 1969, was a final straw for the local tung industry, though it was already in decline due to factors such as synthetic substitutes for tung oil, other plant-derived oils, imported tung oil, and the tree’s susceptibility to late freezes that sometimes killed flowers and prevented seed production.

Now, tung oil trees can be seen in the edges of the woods along Louisiana Highway 21, between Covington and Bush, and along Louisiana Highway 16, between Amite and Franklinton. Their white flowers stand out in late winter and early spring. People may also notice them in the fall, when their leaves are more yellow than those of many trees around them.

Tung flowers are white to pale pink with reddish coloration near the center of the flower. They typically have five petals and remind me a bit of plumeria or frangipani flowers. Fruits contain three to five seeds. Leaves are heart-shaped and sometimes have three lobes. A feature that can help people distinguish between tung oil trees and ones that look similar is the presence of two red glands where the leaf blade meets the petiole (leaf stem).

Despite having ornamental qualities, tung oil trees are not the best choice for all locations. Fallen fruits may be annoying in landscapes. Trees spread by seeds and suckers and are considered invasive by some. Moreover, all parts of the plant including the seeds, which have occasionally been confused with edible nuts, are poisonous to humans and animals. Also, contact between leaves and skin can result in a rash.

In 2014, researchers from the USDA Agricultural Research Service Thad Cochran Southern Horticultural Laboratory in Poplarville, MS, released a tung tree cultivar named ‘Anna Bella’ for ornamental use. It produces few if any fruits and no viable seed, so spread by seedlings isn’t a problem. However, this variety does not appear to be readily available for purchase in the nursery industry.

Let me know if you have questions.

(A number of resources were consulted while writing this article. This was one of the most informative and may be of interest to people who would like to read more about the history of the tung industry: Tung Tried: Agricultural Policy and the Fate of a Gulf South Oilseed Industry, 1902-1969.)

Contact Mary Helen Ferguson.

tree with large heart-shaped and three-lobed leaves growing at the edge of woodsTung oil trees, with their heart-shaped leaves, are often seen growing near the edges of woods. (Photo: G. Suanne Bacque, LSU AgCenter, School of Renewable Natural Resources)

light pink flowers with orangish red centersFlowers of the tung variety 'Anna Bella'. (Photo: Timothy Rinehart, USDA Agricultural Research Service)

12/8/2023 2:41:22 PM
Rate This Article:

Have a question or comment about the information on this page?

Innovate . Educate . Improve Lives

The LSU AgCenter and the LSU College of Agriculture