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