Tree-of-the-Month, June 2024: Chinaberry Tree

China Berry Tree Gress (Photo by Chinaberry)

Melia azedarach

With its pendulous leaves, the Chinaberry Tree is one of the most graceful of trees.  Graceful – and eye-catching:  in late spring and early summer, its lavender-colored flower clusters appear in a dazzling display.  In autumn, the lush foliage turns a bright yellow, providing stunning fall color.

This small- to medium-sized tree carries a rounded crown and, at maturity, normally reaches a height and spread of 25- to 35-feet in our climate.

The leaves are uniquely double- and sometimes triple-compound (split into leaflets) and can reach lengths up to 30 inches.  The long leaves are quite pendulous, giving the tree its relaxed, weeping appearance.

The leaflets, elliptical in shape with an elongated tip or apex, can be 1- to 2-inches long and ½- to ¾-inch wide. They bear shallow serrations on the margins, are a glossy green on the top side and, when turned over, reveal a lighter dull green on the bottom side.

In the fall, the leaves begin to turn bright yellow throughout the crown, randomly at first; from a distance, the tree appears to be in bloom again!  Eventually, all the leaves will turn this brilliant yellow.  In our winter climate, Chinaberry Tree is briefly deciduous, dropping all its leaves and standing bare, except for its berries, for a few months.

China Berry Fall Gress (Photo by Chinaberry)

Beginning in April and continuing through June, light lavender-colored flowers emerge on panicles (5- to 10-inches-long) that develop within the foliage near the ends of the branches; on some trees, the flowers can completely cover the crown.  Delightfully, these have the distinctively sweet fragrance of lilacs.  The tiny flowers (¾ inch wide) have five thin petals, which radiate around a protruding maroon-colored tube that contains fused stamens surrounding the pistil.  Each flower is “perfect”, meaning that each has both stamens (male flower parts) and pistils (female flower parts).  The flowers are pollinated by bees or hummingbirds and can also self-pollinate.

China Barry Flowers Gress (Photo by Chinaberry)

Once the flowers are pollinated, fruit develops as small (½-inch diameter) round to oval drupes, which each contain a single 5-grooved hard seed covered with a thin flesh.  The young fruit is green, turning yellow and orange when ripe, before drying to a light beige.  The fruit can persist on the tree until the next growing season.  Fair warning:  the fruit is toxic to most animals, including humans, but the flesh is so bitter that it is essentially inedible.  However, birds can eat the ripe fruit – and will gobble them up with no other ill effect than intoxication.

China Berry Fruit Gress (Photo by Chinaberry)

On young trees, the bark is smooth, maroon-brown in color, with raised light-brown lenticels.   With age, the bark becomes light-gray, with shallow vertical interlacing furrows that reveal an orange-brown inner bark.

Chinaberry Tree is endemic to wide areas of Southeast Asia, from China to India, Indonesia, and northern Australia.  In the tropical forests where it is native, it can grow to the amazing height of 150 feet, where it is commonly harvested for its high-quality timber, which can be used in place of other tropical hardwood species that have been over-harvested and hence restricted, such as mahogany and teak.

Traditionally, the leaves and bark have been used for their medicinal and insecticidal properties.  The grooved seeds are used for beads in jewelry.

Beginning in the 1600s, Chinaberry Tree was introduced to mild-climate areas around the world.  It is now regularly used for reforestation projects in Asia, Africa, Central America, and South America.

In 1830, it was introduced as an ornamental tree in the southern states of Georgia and South Carolina; it has since been planted throughout the entire southern U.S.  In California, it may have been introduced during the Misson Era by the padres, who used the seeds as beads in the crafting of rosaries.  It was subsequently planted as one of the first ornamental trees in the Central Valley.

The Chinaberry Tree has many other common names including “Pride of India”, “Indian Lilac”, “Persian Lilac”, “Cape Lilac”, “Texas Umbrella Tree”, and “Bead Tree”.

It is in the Mahogany plant family (Miliaceae).  Its botanical name is Melia azedarach.  The genus name, Melia, is the Greek word for the Ash Tree (Fraxinus ornus), which has very similar leaves. The specific epithet, azedarach, is from the French word, “azedarach”, which was derived from the Persian words “azad” and “dirakht”, meaning “noble tree”.

Chinaberry Tree does fairly well in our Mediterranean climate.  That said, young trees will need regular water.  Once established, it is relatively drought hardy; however, it cannot survive extended dry periods without irrigation.  It is adaptable to many soil types, from acidic to alkaline.  It is essentially free from plant diseases and insect pests.  It can tolerate temperatures between 20 degrees to 105 degrees Farenheit.  It should be planted in full sun or partial shade and receive at least 6 hours of sun per day.

It is easy to propagate from seeds and cuttings.  Freshly collected seeds should be planted shallowly in a moist potting mix and will take up to 3 months to germinate.  For cutting propagation, after leaf drop, take 6-inch cuttings from the ends of branches;  cuttings should root in 1 to 2 months.

Chinaberry Tree is a versatile and attractive ornamental tree.  It makes a lovely tree for small gardens, as an accent planting or a specimen tree.  It really should be more frequently planted in our community.

Chinaberry Trees, as street trees, can be seen in several places about Santa Barbara:  Several trees are at the northeast corner of Alisos Street and Carpinteria Street; and, a mature specimen stands at 1328 Castillo Street.

 

Tree-of-the-Month articles are sponsored by Santa Barbara Beautiful, whose many missions include the increase of public awareness and appreciation of Santa Barbara’s many outstanding trees and, in a long-time partnership with the City Parks & Recreation Department, the funding and planting of trees along the City’s streets.

Those who wish to honor a special someone can do so with an attractive commemorative marker that will be installed at the base of an existing street tree in the City of Santa Barbara.  Because Santa Barbara Beautiful has participated in the planting to date of over 13,000 street trees, there are plenty of trees from which to choose!  Application forms are available on the Santa Barbara Beautiful website, www.sbbeautiful.org.

David Gress

Written by David Gress

David Gress writes the monthly Tree-of-the-Month articles, sponsored by Santa Barbara Beautiful, whose many missions include the increase of public awareness and appreciation of Santa Barbara’s many outstanding trees and, in a long-time partnership with the City Parks & Recreation Department, the funding and planting of trees along the City’s streets.

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