“There’s a Chinaberry tree I remember I used to climb in and out of my window … “
– Rodney Crowell, ‘Telephone Road’
Peterson’s field guide to Eastern trees notes that Melia azedarach is “widely planted in dooryards in the South.” Writer David Bunch praised the tree’s growing habit, “I had not known that, unclipped, the Chinaberry would soar up and up on a graceful, curved bole (trunk) to spread its delicate foliage in light, feathery and semi-pendant sprays. I have decided that man, with his clippers and pruning hooks, has not done right by the Chinaberry tree.”
Chinaberry is a hardy, deciduous member of the mahogany family that can grow to 50 feet high, but less than 30 feet is more common. It has reddish-brown furrowed bark and in spring produces long panicles of purple tubular flowers whose fragrance is reminiscent of lilacs. After flowering, clusters of marble sized yellow-green drupes — fleshy fruits that usually contain a single stone-like seed — appear and hang on through the winter, gradually becoming wrinkled and losing their color. These fruits are poisonous to humans and other mammals but are eaten by birds which afterward may appear to be drunken or paralyzed.
Fast growing, adaptable to many environmental conditions, virtually immune to disease and insects, Chinaberry thrives in disturbed or open areas. In forests and marshes it forms dense thickets, shading out native species.
Introduced from Asia, Chinaberry has been used as an ornamental and shade tree, sometimes called the “Umbrella Tree” because of its spreading crown. Its wood is light brown to dark red and seasons easily without warping or cracking and resists fungus. Although suitable for making cabinetry, it is surprisingly underutilized.
Chinaberry’s hard, round grooved seeds have been strung as rosary beads, while the fruits have been processed into flea powder. Its medicinal value includes a leaf tissue molecule that has been used to fight the herpes simplex virus.
— Joanna Angle is a 30-year resident of Chester County and a Master Tree Farmer. She has previously directed the Olde English District Tourism Commission, produced and hosted “Palmetto Places” for SCETV and helped establish the Chester campus of York Technical College.