What is a Chinaberry Tree?

C. Martin

A chinaberry tree is a colloquial name for the tree Melia azedarach, which grows natively in Australia, China, and India. This plant has a number of other common names, including White Cedar, Persian Lilac, Bead Tree, and Ceylon Cedar. The plant family to which chinaberries belong is called Meliaceae, a group that also includes trees from which mahogany is obtained.

Monks in Europe once used seeds of the chinaberry tree to make rosaries.
Monks in Europe once used seeds of the chinaberry tree to make rosaries.

The chinaberry tree is deciduous, which means that it loses its leaves seasonally. When fully grown, it is typically around 33 feet (ten meters) high, but some specimens growing in the rain forests of Australia may reach 150 feet (about 45 meters) in height. When the tree flowers, it has small, sweet-smelling lilac or purple blossoms. These eventually result in an abundance of yellow, berry-like fruits called drupes, which are an important source of food for many species of fruit-eating birds. The flowers, on the other hand, are typically unpalatable for many animals, including bees and butterflies.

In previous generations, leaves of the chinaberry tree were used to treat uterine cramps or period pains.
In previous generations, leaves of the chinaberry tree were used to treat uterine cramps or period pains.

Although the fruit of Chinaberry trees is popular with birds, both the fruit and the leaves are poisonous for humans. They contain toxins that damage the nerve cells, and various kinds of poisonous resin substances. The combination of toxins may even be fatal in some instances. In spite of the toxicity of the leaves, in the past they have been used in a dilute infusion of water to treat uterine cramps or period pains.

The chinaberry tree has been introduced to America and some other temperate countries. When it was first brought into the country it was considered an ornamental tree, and in some areas, plants and seeds can still be bought. Due to its toxicity, it is often considered a pest species in many American states to which it has spread. It is a highly invasive tree which has a tendency to spread rapidly, and is extremely difficult to uproot once it is established.

The wood of the chinaberry tree is considered to be of a very high quality. It is typically easy to treat, and produces planks that tend to be relatively immune to some of the common problems encountered in wood products, including fungal growth, warping, and cracking. Before the invention of plastic beads, the hard seeds of the chinaberry tree, sometimes called Chinaberry beads, were often used as beads in the manufacture of necklaces. In Europe, monks even used the seeds to make rosaries.

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Discussion Comments


I grew up with a large chinaberry tree in my front yard that my dad built a tree house in and we never had any problems with toxicity. My dad just told us not to eat the berries and we listened. I would spend hours in that tree making mud pies and potions with my friends in the neighborhood. Very fond memory of my childhood. I was shocked to hear that the leaves were poisonous too and that it was considered an invasive species. Well this is in Az and the tree was already huge when my parents bought the house in 1991 so I don't know who planted it but we all enjoyed the shade it gave us during the hot summer months


Reply to post 4, leaves and fruit of chinaberry trees are toxic to humans, dogs, cats, and horses!


I grew up in inland Australia with a Chinaberry tree in the front yard of our house. It grew into a big, beautiful shady tree in the center of the lawn in front of the house. We had no problems with the toxicity of the leaves or berries, or with it becoming invasive.


I'm from the Texas Southwest and I grew up in a hope with so many of these trees. We called itLila. At least where I lived, each tree had to be transplanted. I never encountered too many of these. True that the berries are poisonous to humans, but I was always told not to eat them for that reason.


could you tell me if there is anything to worry about? I planted a china berry tree about 30 feet from my well. I did not know the berries and leaves were toxic.


Are these berries bad for puppies to eat?


@closerfan12 -- If you're very concerned about the tree being poisonous or overtaking the garden, why don't you consider going with a species of bush instead?

I have some elderberry bushes in my backyard, and the animals just flock to them, so that would certainly fill that purpose, and elderberries are certainly edible. Other tree options you might want to consider just for sheer ornamentation are the summer red maple tree, or even a eucalyptus.

I think its really up to you -- I happen to be more fond of shrubbery than trees, but there are certainly advantages to using the Chinaberry tree as well. Why don't you ask your client what she wants?


One of the most clear memories from my childhood is playing under the Chinaberry tree in my grandparents backyard. My cousins and I used to take the seeds out of the middle of the fruit and make "jewelry" for each other, and it was also just so relaxing to sit under the shade of that big tree.

Now I live in the American West, so all I've got are redwood trees, but I don't think I'll ever forget the feeling of sitting under that mulberry tree -- every time I hear that song by Mew, Chinaberry tree, I'm always brought back to that time.

Thanks for the trip down memory lane, wisegeek -- and very interesting article, to boot!


I have recently been hired to redesign a home in Australia, and the client would like me to update her garden with native Australian trees and shrubs. Do you think that a chinaberry tree would be a good choice here? Oh, by the way, the lady also wants a tree with fruit, because she wants to attract wildlife to the garden, which is another reason that I thought a chinaberry tree might be a good choice.

I have considered taking some full-size specimens and transplanting them into the yard, but I am afraid that the trees might end up just taking over and choking out all the other trees and shrubs. Also, the client has small children, which would make me a bit leery since the tree can be so poisonous.

What is your opinion? I'm really of two minds here, and would really appreciate any other readers' comments as well.

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