Tree of the moment: Melia azedarach

When we moved in to our home 26 years ago there was a Melia tree in the back corner but the poor old thing was past its use-by date so not too much later we had it removed. I’ve been enjoying getting to re-know it, in the gardens of others, in the past few weeks, my attention piqued by its spring flowering.

Photo: Sandra Simpson

Known as white cedar in Australia and Chinaberry in the US, Melia azedarach also has several other common names, including umbrella tree, bead tree, Indian lilac and Persian lilac. It is native to parts of Australia (and in other parts is considered a weed), as well as the Middle East, India, China and South East Asia. Drought tolerant, it reaches a height of 6-12m with a wide canopy.

The tree has fragrant flowers in spring, offers shade in summer and is deciduous in winter when the yellow berries (containing seeds) hang on the branches like so many small moons. The berries, I’ve read, are liked by our native word pigeon (kereru) – in this 2005 article, author Russell Fransham says he planted the trees specifically to attract those birds. The hard seeds, toxic when consumed in large amounts, were once commonly used to make rosaries.

A Melia tree covered in seeds in the Imperial Palace Garden, Kyoto, Japan. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Melia azedarach is a member of the mahogany family although its timber isn’t considered particularly valuable.

Read more about the tree here.

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2 thoughts on “Tree of the moment: Melia azedarach

  1. How lucky you are in NZ not to have the ghastly processionary caterpillars of the white cedar moth that swarm in such large numbers that the tree can be completely defoliated in a few days. It happens mostly in autumn but there are sometimes spring hatchings as well. And when they come down out of the tree during the day they look for shelter – and the swarm can end up in your garden shed, or even the house!

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