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Melia azedarach, commonly known by many names, including white cedar, chinaberry tree, bead-tree, Cape lilac, syringa berrytree, Persian lilac, and Indian lilac, is a species of deciduous tree in the mahogany family, Meliaceae, that is native to Indomalaya and Australasia. The genus Melia includes four other species, occurring from southeast Asia to northern Australia. They are all deciduous or semi-evergreen trees.
The adult tree has a rounded crown, and commonly measures attains a height of 7–12 metres, however in exceptional circumstances M. azedarach can attain a height of 45 metres. The flowers are small and fragrant, with five pale purple or lilac petals, growing in clusters. The fruit is a drupe, marble-sized, light yellow at maturity, hanging on the tree all winter, and gradually becoming wrinkled and almost white.
Common names of Melia azedarach include chinaberry, Persian lilac, white cedar, Texas umbrella, bead-tree, Cape lilac, Ceylon cedar, Syringa, malai vembu (மலை வேம்பு), bakain, zanzalakht (زنزلخت) and dharek or dhraik (دھریک) Turaka vepa in Telugu. Other common names include Ghora neem (ঘোড়ানিম) (Ghora meaning horse) in Bengali Hebbevu in Kannada and Vilayati (foreign) neem in Bundelkhand region, and Bakain in Haryana, Rajasthan, East Uttar Pradesh and Jharkhand region of India. It has been naturalized in Madagascar where it is called vaondelaka.
Uses and ecology
The main utility of chinaberry is its timber. This is of medium density, and ranges in colour from light brown to dark red. In appearance it is readily confused with the unrelated Burmese Teak (Tectona grandis). Melia azedarach in keeping with other members of the family Meliaceae has a timber of high quality, but as opposed to many almost-extinct species of mahogany it is under-utilised. Seasoning is relatively simple in that planks dry without cracking or warping and are resistant to fungal infection. The taste of the leaves is not as bitter as Neem (Azadirachta indica).
The cut branches with mature fruit are sold commercially to the florist and landscaping trade particularly as a component for outdoor holiday décor. The fruits may persist for some time prior to shattering off the stem or discoloring which occurs rapidly after a relatively short time in subfreezing weather.
Some hummingbirds like Sapphire-spangled Emerald (Amazilia lactea), Glittering-bellied Emerald (Chlorostilbon lucidus) and Planalto Hermit (Phaethornis pretrei) have been recorded to feed on and pollinate the flowers, these only take it opportunistically.
Fruits are poisonous to humans if eaten in quantity. However, like those of the Yew tree, these toxins are not harmful to birds, who gorge themselves on the fruit, eventually reaching a "drunken" state. The toxins are neurotoxins and unidentified resins, found mainly in the fruits. Some birds are able to eat the fruit, spreading the seeds in their droppings. The first symptoms of poisoning appear a few hours after ingestion. They may include loss of appetite, vomiting, constipation or diarrhea, bloody faeces, stomach pain, pulmonary congestion, cardiac arrest, rigidity, lack of coordination and general weakness. Death may take place after about 24 hours. Like in relatives, tetranortriterpenoids constitute an important toxic principle. These are chemically related to Azadirachtin, the primary insecticidal compound in the commercially important Neem oil. These compounds are probably related to the wood and seed's resistance to pest infestation, and maybe to the unattractiveness of the flowers to animals.
Leaves have been used as a natural insecticide to keep with stored food, but must not be eaten as they are highly poisonous. Chinaberry fruit was used to keep drying fruit from having worms in the fruit from insects laying eggs in the fruit. By placing the berries in drying apples (etc) and keeping the fruit turned in the sun without damaging any of the Chinaberry skin the fruit will dry and not have insect larvae in the dried apples.
As invasive species
The plant was introduced around 1830 as an ornamental in the United States (South Carolina and Georgia) and widely planted in southern states. Today it is considered an invasive species by some groups as far north as Virginia and Oklahoma. But nurseries continue to sell the trees, and seeds are also widely available. It has become naturalized to tropical and warm temperate regions of the Americas and is planted in similar climates around the world. Besides the problem of toxicity, its usefulness as a shade tree in the United States is diminished by its tendency to sprout where unwanted and to turn sidewalks into dangerously slippery surfaces when the fruits fall, though this is not a problem where songbird populations are in good shape. As noted above, the possibility of commercially profitable harvesting of feral stands remains largely unexplored.
- Linneas, C. (1753)
- "USDA GRIN Taxonomy".
- 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. Retrieved 16 May 2013.
- Floyd, A.G., Rainforest Trees of Mainland South-eastern Australia, Inkata Press 1989, ISBN 0-909605-57-2
- This name is also used for a lilac hybrid, Syringa × persica.
- Baza Mendonça & dos Anjos (2005)
- Russell et al. (1997)
- Langeland & Burks
- Linnaeus, C[arolus] (1753): Species Plantarum 1: 384–385. Tropicos - Missouri Botanical Garden, Saint Louis, Missouri.
- Baza Mendonça, Luciana & dos Anjos, Luiz (2005): Beija-flores (Aves, Trochilidae) e seus recursos florais em uma área urbana do Sul do Brasil [Hummingbirds (Aves, Trochilidae) and their flowers in an urban area of southern Brazil]. [Portuguese with English abstract] Revista Brasileira de Zoologia 22(1): 51–59. doi:10.1590/S0101-81752005000100007 PDF fulltext.
- Langeland, K.A. & Burks, K. Craddock (eds.) (2005): "Melia azedarach". In: Identification and Biology of Non-Native Plants in Florida's Natural Areas: 96–97. Version of 2005-SEP-05. PDF fulltext.
- Russell, Alice B.; Hardin, James W. & Grand, Larry (1997): "Melia azedarach". In: Poisonous Plants of North Carolina. Retrieved 2008-JAN-26.