why mediterranean in lower case? 

Melia azedarach From Curtis's botanical magazine 1807, volume 27, plate 1066, hand-coloured engraving by Francis Sansom after Sydenham Teast Edwards

Melia azedarach flowers earn it the name Indian lilac.

photo of a Melia azedarach leaf enlarge this image

A single Melia azedarach leaf, showing is compound structure (bipinnate).

M. azedarach turn yellow before they fall.

The round, cream-colored berries of M. azedarach on leafless winter branches.

A beautiful photographic composition including Melia azedarach photo by k_keiko on flickr

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Melia azedarach

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Compare this plant to:

Koelreuteria bipinnata

Koelreuteria paniculata

At a Glance

height: 50ft • 15m

width: 25ft • 10m

USDA: 7-11

Sunset: 6-31

Sécheresse: 5

well drained
rich, loamy
neutral PH
can be
a good deer

potential to become naturalized in mediterranean climates

Melia azedarach L. 1753

MEH…lih…ah  ah…zeh…DAW…r⋅r⋅rahk


Melia : Greek: meliē manna ash; from the resemblance of the leaves • azedarach : Persian: âzâd - free, noble; dirakht - tree

chinaberry, Indian lilac, Indian syringa, pride of India, white cedar (AU), Texas umbrella tree, persian lilac, bead tree, Barbados lilac, Ceylon mahogany, hoop tree, margosa tree Afrikaans: maksering, bessieboom Català (Catalan): mèlia, cinamon Español: cinamomo, melia, agriaz, agrión, amelia, árbol santo, mirabobo, paraíso sombrilla Française: lilas de Perse, arbre à chapelets, arbe margousier Hrvatski (Croatian): melija, očenašica Italiano: albero dei rosari, albero dei paternostri Português: cinamomo, margoseira do Himalaio Türk (Turkish): tespih aǧacı Ελληνική (Greek): μελιά, ψευδομελιά Arabic: أزادرخت

עברית (Hebrew): אזדרכת מצויה

Natural distribution extending from India, China and Japan to Indonesia, Australia (non mediterranean climate) and the Pacific Islands; a weedy invader in many (non mediterranean climate) parts of the world

Synonymy: Melia azedarach var. japonica (G.Don)Makino 1914; Melia azedarach var. sempervirens L. 1753; Melia candollei A.Juss. 1830; Melia floribunda Carrière 1872; Melia toosendan Siebold & Zucc. 1843

While this tree is listed on many invasive species lists worldwide, and it is documented to be resident in wild lands of California, it is not currently seen as a threat by the California Invasive Plant Council.  But in a few other mediterranean climate regions there is documentation that reseeding does occur reliably (e.g. Perth in Western Australia), either due to the suitability or local soil types or animal dispersal (in Perth chinaberrys are known to be favored by local rats and Australia is rich in parrot species large enough to pass the bulky seed).

A deciduous tree to (7-12 m), with stout twigs and purplish bark, dotted with buff-colored lenticel.  The large, compound leaf is up to 1.5 ft (0.5 m) long are 2-3 times pinnate (bipinnate or tripinnate), with a long petiole.  They are pungent when crushed and colored dark green with a bluish cast and the undersides are a lighter green.  Showy clusters of fragrant small flowers - 5 lilac petals (hence the common name of Indian Syringa), with a distinct dark purple tube of stamen stalks - are borne from the leaf axils.

Strands of beads made from M. azedarach seeds.

The drupe berries are cream or yellowish green at maturity, with a hard single seed that has often used for making rosary beads (hence the name árbol santo).  After repeated hand rubbing while in use, these rosary beads would take on a beautiful luster and polish.  These berries persist into winter when the tree is bare, giving it a distinctive appearance even from a distance.  Because of the large, hard seed, when the berries do fall, beside the mess from the fruit portion on paved surfaces, the seeds can be painful if not dangerous to tread upon.

Closely related to the famous Neem tree, Azadirachta indica, which it superficially resembles, except Neem tree leaves are less compound (i.e. merely pinnate).  The chinaberry has the same natural insecticidal properties as Neem and these large, handsome, compound leaves were a good size to lay in between linen or other fabric as a form of natural moth repellent - another reason this tree has been planted in various places throughout the world.  One might still occasionally find an ancient specimen around old homestead properties.

An example of chinaberry wood grain.

These same large leaves create welcome shade in arid regions, especially as the tree grows in degraded or poor soils and requires little water.  Though this tree is relatively short-lived, the wood is particularly beautifully grained and was often used to make furniture, tools, and turned bowls.  It is still sought today by adventurous woodworkers who sometimes make artistic use of its coloration.  This tree is prone to heartwood rotting which can lead to brittleness and tree-fall in wind storms, but also makes for interesting gaps and imperfections that can be exploited in the harvested wood.

Because the bulk of the leafy crown is created by the divided compound leaves, when these leaves fall, the remaining branch pattern is surprisingly open, not unlike the similar-leafed Koelreuteria of the Sapindaceae, both of which allow more winter sunlight than many deciduous trees.  Leaf litter in both is composed of both leaflets and the compound petioles.

Though this tree is relatively quick-growing, assuming a decent canopy within 3-5 years, it trunk and branch pattern take on the unique character of an older tree at the same time, making it a picturesque specimen tree.  Bonsai practitioners often use this species for this reason.

A commonly planted for of this species, 'Umbraculiformis' ('Umbraculifera'), which comes true from seed, creates of dome-like canopy without necessity or shaping through pruning.  This is likely the inspiration for the common name Texas umbrella tree.  Cultivated selections include variegated foliage, highly-dissected foliage, and a pure white flowered form.  Melia azedarach var. australasica is the form native to parts of Australia and surrounding countries, but other forms have now been introduced via cultivation.

Seán O'Hara

What others have to say

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We'd love to hear from you.

Beverly Elischer - Perth, Western Australia

18 Jun 2003 on the Medit-Plants forum

This tree is known in Australia as White Cedar or Cape Lilac and has been proclaimed a weed in Western Australia [though it is native to other parts of Australia].  I am always pulling out seedlings beneath my neighbour's tree, but can't complain too loudly because they got theirs via my son's pea-shooter from a tree which we used to have!

We have a very dry summer (especially lately) but most of the trees are probably in places where they get watered.

Incidentally in Perth these trees suffer terribly from a hairy caterpillar which strips off all the leaves.  However they recover when the caterpillars disappear.

Glenn Breayley - Capetown, South Africa

16 Jun 2003 on the Medit-Plants forum

David gives the Melia as coming from China - I think you'll actually find varieties of it occuring right through Asia - in NZ I remember it being called the Indian Bead tree for instance.  Here its common name is confusingly called Syringa.  I recall it occuring as a forest component in Australia, through Queensland & down into the rainforest formations of NSW.  Summer rainfall situations OK, but the point is that it doesn't occur as an integral forest species there but on the fringes as a pioneer species, much as the Leptospermum scoparium does in NZ or the Virgilias here in South Africa.  As such, to my mind, it is a little more adaptable to non native situations.  I have a couple of them in my garden here in Capetown & occasionally have the odd seedling coming through, often widely dispersed from the parent.  This is definitely mediterranean [climate] & frost free.

Are frugiferous birds in one country less susceptible to poisons than others perhaps? And even if they're not a possible problem in a summer dry climate, whats to stop them getting away & choking the water courses?

They are currently on the banned list here as they form a real problem in our summer/four season rainfall areas as well.  The authorities tend to take a shotgun approach & ban plants country wide, even outside affected areas, on the principle that anyone can transport a problem plant available in a non-affected area.

Its nice to see a civilised tone, in this discussion, on what is a divisive & potentially inflammatory topic.

Richard Starkeson - Oakland, California

12 Apr 2002 on the Medit-Plants forum

I have seen it growing a lot in warm, southern California (it also grows in Texas, so it can take cold winters).  It has very fragrant white flowers (especially fragrant in the evening), and during its deciduous winter period, it is covered with tanish-yellowish-orangish fruit, hard and nut-like, which remain on the tree for months, rather like mountain ash (Sorbus sp.).

Richard Starkeson - Oakland, California

8 Aug 2001 on the Medit-Plants forum

It can be grown here in the San Francisco Bay Area as well, and is not only colorful and unusual in bloom, but fragrant and very attractive to bees.  Annie Hayes of Annie's Annuals mentions that there is a large blooming specimen near her nursery in Richmond, California which is so fragrant in bloom that it can be smelled a block away.

Alessandra Vinciguerra - Rome, Italy

28 Jun 1999 on the Medit-Plants forum

I noticed during a trip to Sicily, and it confirms what you said about Melia's resistance to drought.  I saw them growing in really arid conditions, in the volcanic isalnd Pantelleria, among rocks, with no water except the scarce winter rains.  They have naturalized there, and provide a welcome and refreshing green canopy (wind resistant as well), besides the shade, in an otherwise dry landscape.

I love the flowers, just like Sean does, but I find that the leaves are just as interesting, being a beautiful, dark green The fruits hang from the bare branches for a long time, and they are a nice sight on a winter day, when they hang like that.  I like it less when they fall, because they can rot easily, so they are better raked and disposed at once (children have fun with the seeds, and make necklace etc...  not for nothing it is called the Bead tree.)

Melia comes easily from seed, and is a fast grower: a three year old sapling I planted in my brother's garden reached tree-size (about 20 ft x 12 ft) in a couple, maybe 3 years.  What is more interesting, it quickly attained an old-looking shape, with a rough bark and heavy limbs.

I hear there is an umbrella shaped form, 'Umbraculiformis', that is considered more suited as a street plant, but I've never seen it.  I think it is a highly recommendable flowering tree for mediterranean climate gardens.


William T Stearn. 2004. Botanical Latin. Timber Press. ISBN 0881926272 / ISBN13 9780881926279 http://gimcw.org/books/bookinfo.cfm?bookid=blwts

Germplasm Resources Information Network (GRIN). National Plant Germplasm System. USDA Agricultural Research Service. Website http://www.ars-grin.gov/npgs/aboutgrin.html

ANPSA. Melia azedarach. Australian Native Plant Society (Australia). Website http://asgap.org.au/m-aze.html [accessed 10 Mar 2010].

Center for Invasive Species and Ecosystem Health, University of Georgia. 23 Oct 2009. Invasive Plants Atlas of the United States. Website http://www.invasive.org/weedus/subject.html?sub=3049 [accessed 10 Mar 2010].

Wapedia (wiki). 22 Feb 2010. Melia azedarach. Website http://wapedia.mobi/en/Melia_azedarach [accessed 10 Mar 2010].

Wittig Albert, Susan . 30 Oct 2006. Chinaberry beads. Pecan Springs Journal (blog). Website http://susanalbert.typepad.com/pecanspringsjournal/2006/10/index.html [accessed 10 Mar 2010].