Chinaberry Tree (Melia azedarach)

Bead Tree, China Ball Tree, Chinaball Tree, Chinaberry, Chinaberry Tree, China Tree, Japanese Bead Tree, Paradise Tree, Persian Lilac, Pride-of-India, Syringa, Texas Umbrella Tree, White Cedar

 

The Chinaberry Tree, scientifically known as Melia azedarach, is a wonderful landscaping tree and well known for its cool shade.  Although it is widely grown as an ornamental tree species, it is considered invasive in some areas due to its speedy growth and incredible reproduction rates.

I. Appearance and Characteristics 

Melia azedarach, commonly known as the chinaberry tree, pride of India, bead-tree, Cape lilac, syringa berrytree, Persian lilac, Indian lilac, or white cedar, is a species of deciduous tree in the mahogany family, Meliaceae, that is native to Indomalaya and Australasia.

The fully grown tree has a rounded crown, and commonly measures 7–12 metres (20–40 feet) tall, exceptionally 45 m (150 ft).

The leaves are up to 50 centimetres (20 inches) long, alternate, long-petioled, two or three times compound (odd-pinnate); the leaflets are dark green above and lighter green below, with serrate margins.

The flowers are small and fragrant, with five pale purple or lilac petals, growing in clusters.

The fruit is a drupe, marble-sized, light yellow at maturity, hanging on the tree all winter, and gradually becoming wrinkled and almost white.

The fruits have evolved to be eaten by animals, which eat the flesh surrounding the hard endocarp or ingest the entire fruit and later vent the endocarp. If the endocarp is crushed or damaged during ingestion or digestion, the animal will be exposed to the toxins within the seed. The processes of mastication and digestion, and the degree of immunity to the particular toxins, vary widely between species, and there will accordingly be great variation in the clinical symptoms following ingestion.

Fruits are poisonous or narcotic to humans if eaten in large quantities. According to Chinese medical literature, human poisoning can occur if 6 – 9 fruits, 30 – 40 seeds, or 400 grams of the bark are eaten.[2] However, these toxins are not harmful to birds, who gorge themselves on the fruit, eventually reaching a “drunken” state. The birds that are able to eat the fruit spread the seeds in their droppings. The toxins are neurotoxins and unidentified resins, found mainly in the fruits. The first symptoms of poisoning appear a few hours after ingestion. They may include loss of appetite, vomiting, constipation or diarrhea, bloody faeces, stomach pain, pulmonary congestion, cardiac arrest, rigidity, lack of coordination and general weakness. Death may take place after about 24 hours. As in relatives, tetranortriterpenoids constitute an important toxic principle. These are chemically related to azadirachtin, the primary insecticidal compound in the commercially important neem oil. These compounds are probably related to the wood and seed’s resistance to pest infestation, and maybe to the unattractiveness of the flowers to animals.

The plant is toxic to cats.

II. How to Grow and Care

Sunlight

The sun-loving Chinaberry tree prefers to grow in full sunlight. These trees need at least 6 hours of direct sunlight every day to grow well. If you’re planting a lot of Chinaberry trees, space them adequately to allow light to pass through. They are not recommended to be grown indoors. 

The Chinaberry tree is not an indoor plant. Although you can experiment by bringing the deciduous tree indoors if you have a sunny spot indoors. 

Chinaberry absolutely loves the sun. They will grow best when the foliage can enjoy strong sunlight throughout the day. 

Young Chinaberry saplings should be placed in bright indirect light, ideally under a tree canopy or 50% shade. Young plants will not tolerate harsh sun very well. 

You will not need to overwinter Chinaberry indoors because they shed all their leaves in the autumn. They are better left outdoors to rest in the dormancy period.

Temperature

These deciduous trees are native to warm tropical and sub-tropical regions and prefer warm to hot temperatures to grow well. With the onset of winter, Chinaberry goes into dormancy and sheds all its foliage. Optimum growing temperatures are 77-95 F (25-35 C). Chinaberry is hardy to USDA zones 7-10.

Bakayn trees are generally heat-loving plants and will grow fastest in a warm and humid climate. They lose all their foliage in the winter and spend the cooler part of the year in dormancy.

It must be noted that Chinaberry is extremely sensitive to low temperatures that are not considered too cold for other plants. 

The fact that Chinaberry will stop growing as soon as the average daily temperatures go below 68 F (20 C) tells us that they will not grow well in any region where the annual average temperature range is below the (50-68 F) 10-20 C limit.

Melia azedarach can tolerate high temperatures well. It will not mind even if the temperatures go as high as 104 F (40 C). However, it is not as tolerant to cold.

These deciduous trees will not tolerate temperatures lower than 23 F (-5 C) and the branches exposed to such temperatures will die back to the main trunk.

Humidity

Chinaberry does not have very particular humidity requirements and is found growing in a range of climatic conditions with varying humidity and rainfall levels. They are found to grow vigorously in high humidity with an ideal humidity range of 35-55%.

It has already been mentioned that Chinaberry trees have high transpiration rates to keep themselves cool when the weather gets too hot. 

This should be kept in mind whenever considering the humidity requirements for these trees. Chinaberry trees are usually grown outdoors so it isn’t much you can do to adjust the humidity higher or lower for these trees.

The foliage grows in dense clusters, this means the closely arranged leaves on a Chinaberry tree do well to keep adequate humidity around the individual leaves and leaflets.

Watering

Chinaberry Trees need to be watered regularly. They require moderate amounts of water, and the soil should never be left to dry out in the summer. If growing in the ground, keep the trees well-irrigated for rapid growth. For container-grown Chinaberry, water when the top 2 inches of soil dry up. 

Part of the reason why Chinaberry can withstand harsh sunlight and hot temperatures is its ability to have high transpiration rates that keep the plant cool even in the scorching heat. 

Apart from the tree’s natural capability of high transpiration rates, abundant soil moisture is essential for the tree to replenish its water supply and keep itself cool.

If you live in a hotter climate, you should water your Chinaberry trees deeply every time the top few inches of the soil seem dry. 

Reduce watering in the rainy season and to a bare minimum in the winter because the dormant trees do not need much soil moisture because they are completely devoid of foliage during that part of the year. 

As the tree matures, it develops drought resistance and will not need to be watered even during the summer. 

The root system of a Chinaberry tree is dominated by a major taproot that can extend deep into the ground in search of water. As the tree matures, the taproot grows deeper into the ground allowing the tree access to all the water it needs. 

This informs us of the fact that the natural drought-resistance of Chinaberry trees is not because of their minimal water needs, but for their ability to search for soil moisture. 

Although the trees can be heavy water drinkers during the summer season, avoid overwatering at all costs. Overwatered Chinaberry trees will display symptoms of root rot such as drooping, yellowing leaves, and stunted growth.

Soil

Chinaberry can grow in almost any kind of soil. It can tolerate clayey, loamy, and sandy soil types as long as the soil has adequate drainage. Chinaberry trees will not do well in waterlogged soils. Choose a well-draining, organic potting mix that supplies the rapid grower with adequate nutrients.

Its ability to adapt to a surprisingly wide range of soils makes the Chinaberry tree a particularly carefree tree to grow. 

You could dig a hole anywhere and pop a Chinaberry tree inside, it will grow perfectly fine as long as the roots are not always drowning in water. 

Chinaberry trees can take a wide range of soil pH levels, despite their preference for alkaline soil. But you don’t have to worry about that as the trees will adjust the soil conditions to their liking on their own.

The leaf litter of Chinaberry trees causes the soil to turn alkaline. Over the years as the trees defoliate and shed their leaves every winter, the soil pH is automatically adjusted to alkaline. 

This is important information, especially when you want to grow Chinaberry close to other trees or plants. 

The alkaline effect of a Chinaberry tree makes the soil more suitable for growing plants that prefer basic soil, rather than acid-loving plants such as citrus.

Fertilizing

Chinaberry doesn’t have special fertilization needs, but it may display signs of mineral deficiency in the soil. There are different symptoms displayed in the case of different macronutrient deficiencies. You can use special NPK formulas following the nutrients your soil lacks. Feed in moderation.

Nitrogen deficiency leads to yellow leaves and slow growth. Potassium deficiency leads to yellow leaves with brown tips while low Phosphorus results in blue-green leaves with spots.

While these symptoms do not fully confirm the levels of the different macronutrients in the soil, you can conduct tests for soil nitrogen and other minerals to be sure.  

A balanced NPK formula such as 5-5-5 or 10-10-10 is an all-in-one solution, regardless of the specific mineral the soil may be deficient in. 

You could also choose a highly nitrogenous fertilizer if the soil is lacking in nitrogen only, a potassium-rich fertilizer if the soil lacks in potassium, and so on.

Pruning

Chinaberry trees will naturally grow into a round and densely shading canopy. If grown as ornamental trees, frequent pruning will help improve their shape and widen their canopy for greater shade. Chinaberries frequently grow suckers from the lower end of the trunk which should be removed also.

If you want to limit your Chinaberry to a particularly small or medium size, you will find yourself pruning the tree down to size twice every growing season due to the very fast growing speed. 

When pruning, remove any dead or diseased foliage first. Remove any overlapping branches to promote a better umbrella shape. 

If you don’t want your Chinaberry to grow tall but into a wider ball, deadhead the top of the tree and encourage lateral branch growth so that the young tree grows into a round shape quickly. 

Suckers, vigorous stems that sprout out of the base of the tree are a common occurrence among Chinaberries and should be removed as soon as you spot them to maintain the tree’s aesthetics.

Propagation

Chinaberry reproduces rampantly in nature. You can easily propagate these species by seeds and stem cuttings. Unlike other plants, there is not a great time difference between the two methods as the young Chinaberries can grow as rapidly from seed as from cuttings. 

If you have a mature Chinaberry tree growing around you, you might be able to find very young Chinaberry saplings growing out of the ground under the tree in spring.

The fruit that ripened in fall and fell to the ground easily germinates in spring to give new Chinaberry plants. 

You can sow the ripened fruits directly into the soil after they have spent a period of dormancy after being removed from the tree, ideally in spring after they have spent the winter in dormancy. 

Sow the seeds in a well-draining starting mix, keep them moist and the seeds are likely to germinate after 3 weeks of being planted. 

They don’t take very well to being transplanted, so make sure you sow the seeds directly to a bigger pot that can support the plant as it grows for its first summer.

III. Uses and Benefits 

The main utility of chinaberry is its timber. This is of medium density, and ranges in color from light brown to dark red. In appearance it is readily confused with the unrelated Burmese teak (Tectona grandis). Melia azedarach, in keeping with other members of the family Meliaceae, has a timber of high quality, but in comparison to many almost-extinct species of mahogany, it is under-utilized. Seasoning is relatively simple — planks dry without cracking or warping and are resistant to fungal infection.

The tough five-grooved seeds were widely used for making rosaries and other products requiring beads; however, the seeds were later replaced by plastics. The cut branches with mature fruit are sold commercially to the florist and landscaping trade particularly as a component for outdoor holiday décor. The fruits may persist for some time prior to shattering off the stem or discoloration, which occurs rapidly after a relatively short time in subfreezing weather.

In Kenya the trees have been grown by farmers and used as fodder trees. The leaves can be fed to cattle to improve milk yields and improve farm incomes. The taste of the leaves is not as bitter as that of the leaves of neem (Azadirachta indica).

In Australia, particularly the suburbs of Melbourne, the tree is often used in nature strip plantings by local councils. The councils plant such trees for amenity reasons as well as environmental, social and economic benefits.

Leaves have been used as a natural insecticide to keep with stored food, but must not be eaten as they are highly poisonous. Chinaberry fruit was used to prevent insect larvae from growing in the fruit. By placing the berries in, for example, drying apples and keeping the fruit turned in the sun without damaging any of the chinaberry skin, the fruit will dry and will prevent insect larvae in the dried apples. A mature tree can yield approximately 15 kilograms of fruit annually.

A diluted infusion of leaves and trees has been used in the past to induce uterine relaxation.

The tree’s Limonoid contains useful anticancer and antimalarial compounds.

Chinaberry Tree (Melia azedarach) Details

Common name Bead Tree, China Ball Tree, Chinaball Tree, Chinaberry, Chinaberry Tree, China Tree, Japanese Bead Tree, Paradise Tree, Persian Lilac, Pride-of-India, Syringa, Texas Umbrella Tree, White Cedar
Botanical name Melia azedarach
Plant type Poisonous
Hardiness zone 7a, 7b, 8a, 8b, 9a, 9b, 10a, 10b
Growth rate Fast
Harvest time Fall
Height 30 ft. 0 in. - 40 ft. 0 in.
Width 30 ft. 0 in. - 40 ft. 0 in.
Sunlight Full sun (6 or more hours of direct sunlight a day)
Soil condition Clay
Flower color Pink
Leaf color Green