The Tung Oil Tree (Vernicia fordii) that lives at our tea farm

It is March 6th in South Mississippi and all the plants are indicating an early return to spring. On the tea farm we have many different plants sprinkled about the tea fields, many of them connect us to a friend or some history. Sometimes both!

One of the beautiful bloomers this time of year is our Tung Oil tree. Gifted to us by our friend Mike, their blooms are a burst of spring cheer. These trees are full of history in Mississippi.

Does the Tung Oil Tree really produce oil?

Yes, it absolutely does. The oil is extracted by pressing the seed from the nut of the tree. Tung oil hardens when exposed to the air. The finish is clear but offers an almost wet look to it. Historically, it was used to stain and protect ships. Today, Tung oil would be used to finish furniture or finish floors and even in batteries.

Is the Tung Oil tree native to Mississippi?

The Tung Oil Tree it is not native to Mississippi but actually native to China & Vietnam. It was brought over and cultivated to for its ability to create oil.

What is Mississippi's connection with Tung Oil Tree's?

Starting in the late 30's and going until 1972, Tung Oil tree farms took off in Mississippi. In the 30's thousands of acres of Tung Oil Trees were planted in Mississippi including in Picayune and Carriere. In 1941 the first 10,000-gallon railway car would take Tung Oil to a buyer in Chicago.

What is fascinating here, is to look at this history and reflect on the tea industry in Mississippi today. Over 10 years ago we here started on a journey much like the first Tung Oil tree farmer to bring the tea industry (also native to China) to Mississippi. New tea farms are popping up in Mississippi and the south. There is some resemblance here.

By the 50's the Tung Oil industry peaked. Over a million dollar industry at this point, and cold weather in 1951 had an impact on farms taking out half of the trees. Then in the 60's Hurricane Camille finished off what was left.

Does Mississippi have Tung Oil tree farms today?

Tung Oil Tree farming has been kicking back up from Mississippi to Florida. Science has helped improve Tung Oil tree's ability to produce despite a freeze. New varities of Tung Oil trees bloom later in the spring which makes them less susceptible to freezes. Company's like Gulf Coast Tung Oil are bringing the industry back to life in the US.

How did a Tung Oil tree land onto a tea farm in Mississippi?

Jason McDonald Great Mississippi Tea Company farmer and owner is known for his collection of unique plants on the farm. A farmer with an incredible ability to retain historic facts about plants, maintains small clusters of these special plants on his farm. From tea plants collected from an old Lipton Tea Farm to rare ginger. The farm has plant stories everywhere. 

In the case of his Tung Oil tree, this was a trade of some tea plants for some Tung Oil tree's from a friend who once owned a Tung Oil tree farm.

Should you add a Tung Oil tree to your yard or landscape?

Jason's advice would be no, mostly because the tree can be invasive. It can be managed in an area that is consistently mowed but clean up of the seeds is also key. A better suggestion for a beautiful tree in the South this time of year would be a native Sassafras tree or a Dogwood tree.

If you want to experience the trees without all the hassle, book a March tour at the tea farm. Much easier that way.




Information sources:

Mississippi Gulf Coast National Heritage

Picayune Item

Biloxi Historical Society



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