Photographer: Chuck Bargeron Affiliation: University of Georgia Source: Bugwood.org Copyright: (CC BY 3.0)
Photographer: James H. Miller Affiliation: USDA Forest Service Source: Bugwood.org Copyright: (CC BY 3.0)
Chinaberry, Melia azedarach, is a fast-growing deciduous tree that reaches 30 to 50 feet tall and has a canopy that is usually 20 feet in diameter. The tree is often made of several smaller trunks because it is able to readily sprout from the roots. Stems can vary in coloration from olive-green and brown to a purplish red. Leaf scars from dropped leaves are three lobed and noticeable. The bark is a different color from the stems and is usually a dark brown or reddish brown covrted in light-brown spots. The leaves are alternate and compound and usually bipinnately but sometimes tripinnately with lengths of 1-2 feet land width of 9-16 inches. The leaves emit a musky odor when crushed. The leaflets are lance shaped and taper towards the tip with a dark green upper surface a lighter green under surface. The flowers are small, pink to lavender, star-shaped and fragrant. Round yellowish-tan berries about the same size as the flowers but held together in clusters; with each berry containing 1-6 seeds and remain on the tree after the leaves fall.
These trees grow rapidly from several root sprouts and they create dense thickets where native plant species get crowded out. Chinaberry trees can create monocultures and lower biodiversity amongst native ecosystems. Also, this tree has allelopathic effects and is resistant to native insects and pathogens, making it a fierce competitor against native trees and almost impossible to eradicate with biological controls. All parts of the plant, especially the fruit are poisonous to humans, some livestock, and mammals, including cats and dogs. Symptoms post-consumption include vomiting, diarrhea, breathing difficulty or paralysis. Cattle and some birds can eat the berries without harm. The leaf litter can change the nitrogen, aluminum and alkaline levels in the soil which causes unnecessary chemical changes in the ecosystem. Moreover, bees and butterflies do not use the flower so it serves no pollinator benefit. Some studies have tried using chinaberry-based insecticides against other invasive insects; however, that is the only potential benefit of this invasive tree, which is not really enough to justify its presence in the ecosystems.
Melia azedarach is able to reproduce and spread both by seeds and vegetative pathways. The seeds can be carried long distances by birds or downstream in riparian zones. Seeds can germinate as soon as they mature and can survive severe desiccation and are viable for up to two years.
It was brought to the United States as an ornamental tree either in the late 1700s or the mid-1800s. It then became a popular ornamental shade tree in southern states for over 200 years. It was introduced into Hawaii in 1840. Regrettably, it is still sold in nurseries.
U.S. Habitat: Most invasive in riparian zones or disturbed sites. Also, is often present around rural home sites.
List of all Texas observations by Citizen Scientists here
U.S. Present: AL, AR, AZ, CA, FL, GA, HI, KY, LA, MO, MS, NC, NM, NY, PA, PR, SC, TN, TX, UT, VA
Chinaberry resembles the Western soapberry (Sapindus saponaria var. drummondii) but the leaves are narrower and there are no flowers. Also, Chinaberry resembles the Common elderberry tree (Sambuscus canadensis) but that tree is distinguished by its white flowers and dark purple berries.
Since this tree has the ability to send roots from underground storage organs it is very hard to control this tree by mechanical means. Thankfully, this tree is able to be effectively controlled by any readily available herbicides. The herbicides can be applied to the base of the truck or on the stump after the tree has been cut. Foliar treatment is not ideal ore recommended because high volumes of solution are required.
Hare, W. R., Schutzman, H., Lee, B. R., & Knight, M. W. 1997. Chinaberry poisoning in two dogs. Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, 210(11), 1638.
Mabberley, David J. 1984. A Monograph of Melia in Asia and the Pacific: The history of White Cedar and Persian Lilac. The Gardens' Bulletin Singapore 37(1):49–64.
Matter, M. M., Gesraha, M. A., Ahmed, A. A. I., & Farag, N. A. 2002. Impact of neem and chinaberry fruit extracts on the pest/parasitoid (Pieris rapae/Hyposoter ebeninus) interactions. Anzeiger für Schädlingskunde, 75(1):13-18.