Ben Franklin not to blame for invasion

July 28, 2011 at 8:48 PM
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HOUSTON, July 28 (UPI) -- Scientists studying the DNA of a tree overrunning thousands of acres of coastal U.S. prairie have cleared Ben Franklin of any responsibility for the invasion.

Biologists from Rice University say genetic tests on more than 1,000 Chinese tallow trees prove the famed U.S. statesman did not import the tallow trees that are currently taking over thousands of acres from Florida to East Texas, a Rice release said Thursday.

"It's widely known that Franklin introduced tallow trees to the United States in the late 1700s," Rice University biologist Evan Siemann said. "Franklin was living in London, and he had tallow seeds shipped to associates in Georgia."

Each tallow tree can produce as many as a half million seeds per year, one reason Franklin and others were interested in them, since each seed is covered by a waxy, white tallow that can be processed to make soap, candles and edible oil.

What Franklin couldn't have known was that tallow trees would become overachievers in the New World. Today, the trees are classified as an invasive species and are spreading so fast that they're destroying native habitats and causing economic damage.

However, Siemann's DNA testing has shown the tallow trees that are growing uncontrolled in most of the United States aren't from the batch that Franklin imported.

The descendants of Franklin's trees are confined to a few thousand square miles of coastal plain in northern Georgia and southern South Carolina, Siemann said. All other U.S. tallow are descended from seeds brought to the United States by federal biologists around 1905.

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