By: Mary H. Dyer, Credentialed Garden Writer
What is chinaberry bead tree? Commonly known by a variety of names such as chinaball tree, China tree or bead tree, chinaberry (Melia azederach) is a deciduous shade tree that grows in a variety of difficult situations. Like most non-native plants, it is highly resistant to pests and disease. Read on for more information about this tough, sometimes problematic, tree.
Native to Asia, chinaberry was introduced to North America as an ornamental tree in the late 1700s. Since that time, it has naturalized across much of the South (in the U.S.).
An attractive tree with brownish-red bark and a rounded canopy of lacy foliage, chinaberry reaches heights of 30 to 40 feet (9-12 m.) at maturity. Loose clusters of small purple blooms appear in spring. Hanging bunches of wrinkly, yellow-brown fruit ripens in autumn and provide feed for birds throughout the winter months.
Chinaberry grows in USDA plant hardiness zones 7 through 10. Although it is attractive in the landscape and is frequently welcome in urban settings, it can form thickets and become weedy in disturbed areas, including natural areas, forest margins, riparian areas and roadsides.
Home gardeners should think twice before growing a bead tree. If the tree spreads via root sprouts or bird-dispersed seeds, it can threaten biodiversity by outcompeting native vegetation. Because it is non-native, there are no natural controls by diseases or pests. The cost of chinaberry control on public lands is astronomical.
If growing a chinaberry tree still sounds like a good idea, check with your local university cooperative extension agent first, as Chinaberry may be banned in certain areas and is generally not available in nurseries.
According to cooperative extension offices in Texas and Florida, the most effective chemical control is herbicides containing triclopyr, applied to bark or stumps within five minutes after cutting the tree. Applications are most effective in summer and fall. Multiple applications are usually required.
Pulling seedlings isn’t usually effective and may be a waste of time unless you can pull or dig every little root fragment. Otherwise, the tree will regrow. Also, hand pick the berries to prevent disbursal by birds. Dispose of them carefully in plastic bags.
A note about toxicity: Chinaberry fruit is toxic to humans and pets when eaten in large quantities and may cause stomach irritation with nausea, vomiting and diarrhea, as well as irregular breathing, paralysis and respiratory distress. The leaves are also toxic.
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Average Water Needs Water regularly do not overwater
USDA Zone 7b: to -14.9 °C (5 °F)
USDA Zone 8a: to -12.2 °C (10 °F)
USDA Zone 8b: to -9.4 °C (15 °F)
USDA Zone 9a: to -6.6 °C (20 °F)
USDA Zone 9b: to -3.8 °C (25 °F)
USDA Zone 10a: to -1.1 °C (30 °F)
USDA Zone 10b: to 1.7 °C (35 °F)
USDA Zone 11: above 4.5 °C (40 °F)
Suitable for growing in containers
Seed is poisonous if ingested
Parts of plant are poisonous if ingested
This plant is attractive to bees, butterflies and/or birds
May be a noxious weed or invasive
Self-sows freely deadhead if you do not want volunteer seedlings next season
N/A: plant does not set seed, flowers are sterile, or plants will not come true from seed
This plant is said to grow outdoors in the following regions:
New Bern, North Carolina(2 reports)
North Myrtle Beach, South Carolina
On Aug 11, 2011, Brent_in_NC from New Bern, NC wrote:
The variegated "Jade Snowflake" was developed at NC State's Raulston Arboretum, and they seem to have been successful in developing a NON-INVASIVE form.
The tree has been in my yard for three years now, and there are no baby chinaberries.
The variegation is wonderful, and so is the winter form. In the spring, the leaves develop in balls, so that it looks like a Dr. Seuss tree for a months. It is the centerpiece of our garden and I recommend it very highly.
On May 24, 2011, sueroderus from Bluffton, SC (Zone 8b) wrote:
This is a fast growing open tree in my zone 8b garden. It is on the edge of a wooded area but gets a lot of afternoon sun.
The variegation is great on the new growth but later in the season it does turn green. In the spring and early summer I am always asked what kind of tree it is. It does flower, but it is not very noticeable among the variegated leaves. I have not found it to be invasive.
I grew up with a large chinaberry tree in my front yard that my dad built a tree house in and we never had any problems with toxicity. My dad just told us not to eat the berries and we listened. I would spend hours in that tree making mud pies and potions with my friends in the neighborhood. Very fond memory of my childhood. I was shocked to hear that the leaves were poisonous too and that it was considered an invasive species. Well this is in Az and the tree was already huge when my parents bought the house in 1991 so I don't know who planted it but we all enjoyed the shade it gave us during the hot summer months anon974372 October 17, 2014
Reply to post 4, leaves and fruit of chinaberry trees are toxic to humans, dogs, cats, and horses! anon307117 December 3, 2012
I grew up in inland Australia with a Chinaberry tree in the front yard of our house. It grew into a big, beautiful shady tree in the center of the lawn in front of the house. We had no problems with the toxicity of the leaves or berries, or with it becoming invasive. anon285231 August 14, 2012
I'm from the Texas Southwest and I grew up in a hope with so many of these trees. We called itLila. At least where I lived, each tree had to be transplanted. I never encountered too many of these. True that the berries are poisonous to humans, but I was always told not to eat them for that reason. anon174948 May 11, 2011
could you tell me if there is anything to worry about? I planted a china berry tree about 30 feet from my well. I did not know the berries and leaves were toxic. anon141122 January 9, 2011
Are these berries bad for puppies to eat? TunaLine November 15, 2010
@closerfan12 -- If you're very concerned about the tree being poisonous or overtaking the garden, why don't you consider going with a species of bush instead?
I have some elderberry bushes in my backyard, and the animals just flock to them, so that would certainly fill that purpose, and elderberries are certainly edible. Other tree options you might want to consider just for sheer ornamentation are the summer red maple tree, or even a eucalyptus.
I think its really up to you -- I happen to be more fond of shrubbery than trees, but there are certainly advantages to using the Chinaberry tree as well. Why don't you ask your client what she wants? Planch November 15, 2010
One of the most clear memories from my childhood is playing under the Chinaberry tree in my grandparents backyard. My cousins and I used to take the seeds out of the middle of the fruit and make "jewelry" for each other, and it was also just so relaxing to sit under the shade of that big tree.
Now I live in the American West, so all I've got are redwood trees, but I don't think I'll ever forget the feeling of sitting under that mulberry tree -- every time I hear that song by Mew, Chinaberry tree, I'm always brought back to that time.
Thanks for the trip down memory lane, wisegeek -- and very interesting article, to boot! closerfan12 November 15, 2010
I have recently been hired to redesign a home in Australia, and the client would like me to update her garden with native Australian trees and shrubs. Do you think that a chinaberry tree would be a good choice here? Oh, by the way, the lady also wants a tree with fruit, because she wants to attract wildlife to the garden, which is another reason that I thought a chinaberry tree might be a good choice.
I have considered taking some full-size specimens and transplanting them into the yard, but I am afraid that the trees might end up just taking over and choking out all the other trees and shrubs. Also, the client has small children, which would make me a bit leery since the tree can be so poisonous.
What is your opinion? I'm really of two minds here, and would really appreciate any other readers' comments as well.
The fully grown tree has a rounded crown, and commonly measures 7–12 metres (20–40 ft) tall, however in exceptional circumstances M. azedarach can attain a height of 45 metres (150 ft). 
The leaves are up to 50 centimetres (20 in) long, alternate, long-petioled, two or three times compound (odd-pinnate) the leaflets are dark green above and lighter green below, with serrate margins.
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.
As the stem ages and grows, changes occur that transform its surface into bark (see image).
The genus name Melia is derived from μελία ( melía ), the Greek word used by Theophrastus (c. 371 – c. 287 BC) for Fraxinus ornus,   which has similar leaves.  The species azedarach is from the French 'azédarac' which in turn is from the Persian 'āzād dirakht' (ازادرخت ) meaning 'free- or noble tree'.  [ full citation needed ]
Melia azedarach should not be confused with the Azadirachta trees, which are in the same family, but a different genus.
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 tough five-grooved seeds were widely used for making rosaries and other products requiring beads however, the seeds were later replaced by plastics. 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 the sapphire-spangled emerald (Amazilia lactea), glittering-bellied emerald (Chlorostilbon lucidus) and planalto hermit (Phaethornis pretrei) have been recorded as feeding on and pollinating the flowers these only take it opportunistically. 
In Kenya the trees have been grown by farmers and used as fodder trees. The leaves can be fed to cattle to improve milk yields and improve farm incomes. 
In Australia, particularly the suburbs of Melbourne, the tree is often used in nature strip plantings by local councils. The councils plant such trees for amenity reasons as well as environmental, social and economic benefits. 
The fruits have evolved to be eaten by animals which eat the flesh surrounding the hard endocarp or ingest the entire fruit and later vent the endocarp. If the endocarp is crushed or damaged during ingestion or digestion, the animal will be exposed to the toxins within the seed. The processes of mastication and digestion, and the degree of immunity to the particular toxins, vary widely between species, and there will accordingly be a great variation in the clinical symptoms following ingestion. 
Fruits are poisonous or narcotic 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 birds that are able to eat the fruit spread the seeds in their droppings. The toxins are neurotoxins and unidentified resins, found mainly in the fruits. 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. [ citation needed ]
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 prevent insect larvae from growing 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. [ citation needed ]
A diluted infusion of leaves and trees has been used in the past to induce uterus relaxation. [ citation needed ]
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 [ citation needed ] . As noted above, the possibility of commercially profitable harvesting of feral stands remains largely unexplored.
Diagram of Melia azedarach (White Cedar) tree in a book