When I lived in North Florida, I was driving down the road one day and came across a fruiting tree I hadn’t seen before.
Could these fruits be edible? I wondered. I tasted one carefully and it was sweet, but I spat it out because I am always a very, very cautious naturalist.
Plants can kill you. Don’t try this at home.
After finding this tree, then noting several others along the railroad tracks, I asked around and did some searching. Eventually, I found out it was a chinaberry tree, AKA Melia azedarach.
I also found out IT’S EVIL!
“When Chinaberry was introduced into the U.S. as an ornamental its natural enemies (diseases or insects) were not brought along with it to maintain its populations at low levels. Along Florida’s road sides, in natural areas and forests, and marshes Chinaberry has the ability to grow rapidly and displace the native vegetation in those areas. Through prolific reproduction via seed as well as vegetative reproduction, it is able to shade out other species by forming a dense thicket. The leaf litter produced by Chinaberry causes the soil to become more alkaline, giving an advantage to those species that fair well in alkaline soils. Chinaberry is also believed to have allelopathic properties, prohibiting other species to colonize the area in close proximity to Chinaberry. Overall Chinaberry reduces the plant diversity in any area in which it grows.”
I left the one growing in my edible landscape project – we’ll see how allelopathic it really is.
But wait, UF is downright friendly compared to the Chinaberry write-up at the Texas Invasive Species Institute:
“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.”
Heavens! Lawd have mercy, I’ma getting the vapors!
Despite the bad press, Chinaberry has some good uses.
Chinaberry Tree Uses
First, it’s a relative of mahogany and has quite beautiful wood. You can see pictures at The Wood Database.
In that post, The Wood Database relates chinaberry is:
“sometimes called “Persian Lilac,” though the name usually rather refers to a hybrid lilac in the Syringa genus. Chinaberry is not closely related to true lilacs, but is rather related to the various types of Mahogany in the Meliaceae family. Chinaberry is a potentially commercially valuable timber tree throughout its natural range in Asia, though perhaps under-utilized and under-appreciated.”
There are some chunks of wood laying around at the resort from where some trees were cut a year ago. Maybe I’ll get some of it sawed up and see what it looks like for myself.
Other than wood, the tree has nice flowers and an airy growth pattern. It also grows back vigorously when cut, meaning it may be a good chop-and-drop tree, though the allelopathy might be a problem.
It also has very hard seeds which can be used for beads:
Overall, like many invasive species, I’d say this tree isn’t as bad as advertised.
I’m leaving the tree you can see in this video:
If it’s really terrible and the plants beneath it die, we’ll just mulch the area and wait a few years, then cut that thing down for timber.
*Image of fruiting chinaberry via https://www.flickr.com/photos/mauroguanandi/. Creative commons license.
Brings back memories… my brother and I used to make bows and arrows out of those! Homeschooling…
Homeschooling is the best!
In Georgia we used to make spears and bow and arrows as kids. I have read it’s poisonous to goats
But, mine love it. They eat the leaves and even the bark on the tree. It’s like crack to them. They love it! I think they are getting a buzz from it!
Im interested in making an insecticide, like in the jadam method from it.
I have seen goats eating all kinds of stuff that’s supposed to be poisonous. I think, so long as those “toxic to goats” trees aren’t the complete diet, they know what they’re doing. Overgrazed animals with just chinaberry to munch might have more of a problem. Mine ate tobacco, azalea, cassava and other “bad” stuff, though they had lots of other things to choose.
I had never heard of a chinaberry tree. Do they only grow in certain parts of the country??
They grow in Florida – not sure how much farther they have escaped.
I live in Mesa, AZ I have them in my yard. They are a great shade tree but the balls are a nightmare in the yard when you mow them they shoot like bullets.
We have 3 in our yard in Arkansas. I’m not sure why they are here. I have never seen them anywhere else.
Birds may have transported the seeds.
My grandmother live on highway 10, 3 miles from Perryville, Arkansas.. She had 2 chinaberry trees and a swing between them… Never knew they were poison. BUT…i judt bought one to try in Granite City. IL
They are really beautiful.
What will happen if you mistakenly cook chinaberry leaves with lemon orange and drink the water….
What will happen if you mistakenly cook chinaberry leaves with lemon orange and drink the water…. Bcos I drink it and I taught it was neem leaves
I have one in my yard. Southern California. I think the people that owned my house before planted it.
We just bought a house in the Mojave desert, and there are two (6 ft and 8 ft) on our property. Doesn’t sound like they normally grow in the middle of the dry desert, but we haven’t been irrigating them and they seem to be just fine.
They are tough!
Hello! I am curious if you have kept your trees & have any additional insights. We have two in our yard along a saltwater canal in South Texas. Everyone here complains about them, but they provide such lovely shade that I enjoy daily. I question if I’m doing the right thing by leaving them alone (they’re huge) but I enjoy their shade tremendously! Good shade is hard to find here.
If you enjoy them, keep them. They are pretty trees.
My parents have 2 huge ones which have been there my whole life. Yes they’re beautiful & make great shade but, be fair warned. They are also “self pruning”. A huge branch spontaneously broke off in the middle of the night recently. Fortunately, the car it hit wasn’t damaged but, the neighbor demanded it got moved early in the morning (& it was heavy). I can’t make any guarantees but, it seems like self pruning happens more when there’s less water.
they are poisonous, so don’t encourage your dog or livestock to eat them. otherwise they are pretty. we used to have china ball fights with them when we were kids. they have beautiful flowers that smell lovely. they make a nice pretty carpet when they fall. and they do provide lovely shade.
They do have their usage.
Deworming (leaves) for intestinal worms. Best to mix in with more palatable leaves like Lucina (lead tree) for goats, cattle. Don’t feed Lucina to Horses as it can cause hair loss.
Wood is very usable, from fires (not for bbq/food) to lumber (round pole or milled). Becomes very light weight after drying (curing) and simple to cure as it doesn’t warp.
Seeds are AMAZING for scalp psoriasis. Just a good handfull of seeds (seed pod with yellow flesh), boil in water, cool, hand press/squeeze skin/flesh off hard seedpod core, strain and retain liquid. Add a bit of Dr. Bronner’s soap (if you want some suds) and shampoo w hard scrub, let sit for 5 mins, rinse and repeat. No more flakes/scabs etc or ITCHING for weeks/month from one application. Keep excess in fridge.
I love my two China berries in North Texas! And they are covered in butterflies every spring when it’s full of wonderful smelling flowers! They do make a mess with the berries but it’s just a rake job. The dogs have learned to not eat them but the birds enjoy them. And the squirrels love living in the trees while my chickens enjoy living at the base of one of the trees.
What hurricane Ivan twisted hurricane Sally uprooted our 45 footer. Estimates to remove it 1200.00 or more turned into local furniture-wood turners reacted to knowledge of its existence like they discovered oil! 22″ diameter tree is being meticulously parted out for bowls and furniture and raw stock for exchange.
Hate them! The grow everywhere, the tree is weak so branches snap off in a stiff wind.It (the one next door) drops everything in my pool . Spring IT drops flowers , so many flowers they clog the pool filter daily! Summer it drops the bracts or colored leaves, fall it drops branches and berries. I’m in central Fl so no winter but it snow’s chinaberry!
Yes! Chinaberry snow is right.
Do their leaves are able to repel insects? Or can it be use as a key ingredient in making an organic mosquito coil for better results?
What insects does it kill and hilow do you an insecticide from it?
Namaskar, A Yogi or a Life Experience Scientist makes decisions by Experimenting. Does this Plant have any beneficial uses ? How is this Plant similar to the Neem tree, which is a Medicinal Plant ? BNK
Several chapters of Texas Master Naturalists spend hours each week killing Chinaberry trees, mostly along creeks and streams in and around San Antonio. As invasive non-natives that change the soil chemistry and displace natives they are an unwelcome nuisance that disrupt habitat restoration. Nice neighbors upstream from my patch of green belt allow hundreds of seeds to float downstream each year. I manage the problem in my small zone of stewardship, but see new thickets everywhere during walks .
Can seasoned China berry wood be used safely for food utensils such as Bowles and pepper and salt mills?