Chinaberry is a round, deciduous, shade tree, reaching 30 to 40 feet at maturity and growing 5 to 10 feet during the first and second year after seed germination. Growth slows as the tree reaches 15 or 20 feet tall. It is successfully grown in a wide variety of situations, including alkaline soil where other trees might fail. Truly an urban survivor, chinaberry has become naturalized in much of the South.
Scientific name: Melia azedarach
Pronunciation: MEEL-ee-uh uh-ZEE-duh-rack
Common name(s): chinaberry
USDA hardiness zones: 7A through 10B (Figure 2)
Origin: native to India, China, and the Himalayas
UF/IFAS Invasive Assessment Status: invasive and not recommended (North); caution, may be recommended but manage to prevent escape (Central, South)
Height: 30 to 40 feet
Spread: 15 to 25 feet
Crown uniformity: irregular
Crown shape: round
Crown density: open
Growth rate: fast
Leaf arrangement: alternate
Leaf type: bipinnately compound, odd-pinnately compound
Leaf margin: serrate, lobed, incised
Leaf shape: ovate, elliptic (oval)
Leaf venation: pinnate
Leaf type and persistence: deciduous
Leaf blade length: 1 to 2 feet; secondary leaflets are 1 to 2 ½ inches
Leaf color: dark green on top, paler green underneath
Fall color: yellow
Fall characteristic: showy
Flower color: lavender or purplish
Flower characteristics: not showy; fragrant; emerges in clusters on 8" long, branched panicles
Fruit shape: round
Fruit length: 1/3 to 3/4 inch
Fruit covering: fleshy drupe
Fruit color: yellow
Fruit characteristics: attracts birds; showy; fruit/leaves a litter problem
Trunk and Branches
Trunk/branches: branches droop; not showy; typically one trunk; no thorns
Bark: reddish brown and smooth, becoming slightly fissured with age
Pruning requirement: needed for strong structure
Breakage: susceptible to breakage
Current year twig color: brown
Current year twig thickness: very thick
Wood specific gravity: unknown
Light requirement: full sun to partial shade
Soil tolerances: clay; sand; loam; alkaline; acidic; well-drained
Drought tolerance: high
Aerosol salt tolerance: moderate
Roots: not a problem
Winter interest: no
Outstanding tree: no
Ozone sensitivity: unknown
Verticillium wilt susceptibility: unknown
Pest resistance: free of serious pests and diseases
Use and Management
The clusters of lilac flowers are fragrant in the evening but are often hidden by the emerging foliage. The leaves turn a vivid yellow for a short time in the fall. The golden yellow fruit is quite attractive as it persists on the tree during the fall and winter. When eaten in quantities, the fruit is poisonous to people but not to birds. The wood is very brittle but it has been used in cabinet making.
Chinaberry is considered a "weed" tree in the southeastern U.S., and so it is not usually available from nurseries. It is killed back to the ground in the northern end of its range and is often seen as a several-year-old sprout. Many people despise the tree because it has taken over waste areas and other disturbed soil areas, and has naturalized over large areas of the South. It grows anywhere in any soil except wet soil. But with proper pruning to create a well-formed trunk and branch structure, the plant could improve its reputation. If you have one and would like to increase its life-span, prune to open up the crown to encourage development of a few well-spaced major limbs. You will not find anyone recommending planting this tree but fine examples of the tree can be found growing in the worst soil.
The cultivar 'Umbracultiformis' has a dome-like form and could be the plant seen commonly in some wild stands. It is often sold as Texas Umbrella-Tree. It would be nice to find a fruitless selection.
Propagation is from seed or root cuttings.
Pests and Diseases
Scale, whitefly and sooty mold infest chinaberry.
Leaf spot causes premature defoliation.
Koeser, A. K., Hasing, G., Friedman, M. H., and Irving, R. B. 2015. Trees: North & Central Florida. University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences.
Koeser, A.K., Friedman, M.H., Hasing, G., Finley, H., Schelb, J. 2017. Trees: South Florida and the Keys. University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences.