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Biodiversity Blog


The Trees of BFL: Chinaberry (Melia azedarach)

 Screen Shot 2019 09 04 at 08.59.00

The Chinaberry tree actually has many common names, some being bead-tree, Persian lilac, and Pride of India. This is a fast-growing deciduous tree that is part of the mahogany family and native to Southeastern China. It reaches 30 to 50 feet in height. The flowers are fragrant, small, and pink to light purple in color. The fruit is about the size of a marble that turns light yellow when mature. The berries stay on the tree through winter, and dry and lighten in color. While toxic to humans and some animals, birds do eat the fruit which assists in spreading seeds and propagation of the tree. When the berries become fermented, however, they are toxic to birds and mammals. Leaves are also toxic.

In the US, these flowers are not of interest to most pollinators. The trees also create monocultures and thus can lower the biodiversity of areas where they grow. They are also very resistant to native insects and pathogens.

"Chinaberry is an invasive exotic tree that we have continually removed over almost four decades," says Dr. Larry Gilbert, director of the Brackenridge Field Lab. "It's fair to say we've cut down 10,000 over those years." When BFL had a deer population, the deer were effective at eating seedlings and suckers reemerging from stumps. With no disease or specific insect that targets it, sustainable control of this tree will require the introduction of host specialist herbivorous insects, according to Dr. Gilbert.

The introduction of this tree to the US is credited to French botanist André Michaux (1770-1855), who grew it in his garden in Charleston, South Carolina. These trees were propagated from seeds he found during his travels in Asia. Michaux liked how easily the tree could be grown from seeds, how fast it grew, and the quality of wood it produced. The wood is reddish, and has been used to make furniture and cigar boxes. The roots can be used to create a decoction that is ingested to expel intestinal parasitic worms. 

Following the introduction of the Chinaberry, the tree was often used in southeastern states as an easy-to-grow shade tree, but soon became invasive. 



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