Aleurites fordii: The Tung Tree

    Aleurites fordii: The Tung Tree

    Aleurites fordii, commonly known as the tung tree, is a species of flowering plant in the spurge family (Euphorbiaceae) that is native to southern China, Myanmar, and northern Vietnam. It is a small to medium-sized deciduous tree that grows up to 20 m tall, with a spreading crown and heart-shaped or lobed leaves. The flowers are pale pink to purple, with streaks of darker red or purple in the throat, and are produced in terminal clusters before or with the leaves. The fruit is a hard, woody berry that contains four or five large, oily seeds.

    The tung tree is valued for its seeds, which are the source of tung oil, also known as China wood oil or nut oil. Tung oil has been used for centuries in China as a lamp oil, a wood finish, a paint ingredient, a varnish component, and a caulk material. It has also been used as a motor fuel after processing to remove gums in the oil. Marco Polo wrote in the 13th century that the Chinese used a mixture of lime, hemp, and tung oil to paint their ships and make them waterproof.

    The tung tree was introduced to other countries for oil production and ornamental purposes. It was successfully cultivated in the U.S. Gulf States from Florida to Texas in the early 20th century, but the industry declined after World War II due to frost, hurricanes, and competition from overseas. The tung tree is now considered an invasive species in Florida, where it can displace native vegetation and pose a fire hazard.

    The tung tree and its relatives, such as the candlenut tree (Aleurites moluccana), the mu tree (Aleurites montana), the Japan wood oil tree (Aleurites cordata), and the lumbang tree (Aleurites trisperma), are attractive and shade-tolerant trees that belong to the same genus of arborescent plants in the Euphorbiaceae. They are native to China, the Indian Subcontinent, Southeast Asia, Papuasia, and Queensland, and have been naturalized on various islands in the Pacific and Indian Oceans, as well as the Caribbean.

    Some of the benefits of tung oil are its durability, water resistance, and natural appearance. It can penetrate deeply into wood fibers and form a protective layer that prevents moisture and dirt from damaging the wood. It can also enhance the grain and color of the wood, giving it a warm and natural look. Tung oil is compatible with most types of wood, and can be applied by brushing, wiping, or spraying. It dries faster than other oils, and does not darken or yellow over time.

    Some of the drawbacks of tung oil are its toxicity, flammability, and odor. Tung oil is derived from the seeds of the tung tree, which contain a toxic substance called aleuritin. This substance can cause skin irritation, allergic reactions, and respiratory problems if inhaled or ingested. Tung oil is also highly flammable, and can spontaneously combust if left in rags or containers. It has a strong and unpleasant odor that can linger for days or weeks after application. Tung oil is not suitable for food-contact surfaces, such as cutting boards or salad bowls.

    Tung oil is one of the oldest and most versatile wood finishes in the world. It has been used for centuries in China and other Asian countries for various purposes, such as lighting, painting, waterproofing, and preserving wood. It has also been adopted by Western countries for its durability, water resistance, and natural appearance. However, tung oil also has some disadvantages, such as its toxicity, flammability, and odor. Therefore, it is important to use tung oil with caution and care, and to follow the instructions and safety precautions on the product label.

    Hi, I’m Adam Smith

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