On roadsides in South Mississippi, passersby may notice a curious tree, somewhat squat compared to neighboring pines, with large, heart-shaped leaves. Early in spring, the tree will appear draped in brilliant cream and salmon blossoms; some weeks later it will bear ruddy plum-sized nuts. This plant, rarely seen outside a narrow strip along the Gulf Coast, once played a significant role in the economy of the southern part of Mississippi.
Tung trees, named for the Chinese word for “heart,” were imported to the United States in 1905 to support the nation’s growing industrial need for oils. The reddish tung nuts provided oil well suited for use as a protective coating, solvent, or drying agent in paints and varnishes. Its drying properties made it particularly attractive for industrial purposes, and planters responded to the demand by seeking appropriate land for planting the trees. Because the tree enjoys tropical conditions, experts thought the trees would succeed in California, but they did not. Surprisingly, the trees preferred Mississippi, with its sandy, well-drained soil and gently rolling terrain. Other Gulf States experimented with tung orchards, but Mississippi quickly took the lead in domestic tung oil production. By midcentury some eighty thousand acres in South Mississippi were planted in tung trees, and the state was home to more than half of the 7.5 million tung trees in the United States.
The tung orchards were hubs of activity at harvest time, which generally started as the greenish nuts grew reddish. After changing colors, the nuts dropped to the ground and were usually collected in old feed sacks. The sacks were first hung from the tree’s branches to begin the drying process and then hauled to drying barns. Designed specifically for this purpose, the barns sat two to three feet off the ground on concrete supports, allowing air to circulate between the floorboards to accelerate the drying process. Each barn was divided into sections to allow for nuts at varying stages of drying. After sufficient drying, the nuts were loaded onto trucks and taken to one of several presses, such as those at Picayune or Poplarville, where the oil could be extracted.
By the 1960s domestic use of tung oil had fallen, primarily because of competition from cheaper petroleum products. Still, many orchards remained, and planters began to face poor market prices caused by overproduction. In 1969 Hurricane Camille devastated the Mississippi tung industry, destroying more than fifty thousand acres of trees. The industry did not recover, and in 1973 tung oil production in the area ceased completely. A few trees remained, however, lingering along roadsides and fencerows in the most southern part of the state and giving rise to tales of tourists who tried to eat the toxic nuts.
Though Mississippi farmers attempted to revive the tung oil industry in the 1990s, those efforts were abandoned after Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast in 2005.
- Courtney Carter, Lisa House, and Randy Little, Review of Agricultural Economics (Autumn–Winter 1998)
- Lewrene Glaser, Industrial Uses of Agricultural Materials (1996)
- S. E. McGregor, Insect Pollination of Cultivated Crop Plants (1976)
- “Tung Oil,” KnowLA: Encyclopedia of Louisiana (17 October 2014), http://www.knowla.org/entry/1462/&view=summary