Human Flower Project

Orrington, MAINE USA

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Princeton, MAINE USA

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Listening to Chinaberries

Once prized for its wood, shade, vigor and medicinal properties, this immigrant to the Southern U.S. is now nationally maligned.


Flowers of the chinaberry tree (Melia azedarach)

March 2011

Photo: Human Flower Project

How did a tree that once inspired gratitude in the U.S. become a pariah? All of us who treasure (or covet) good repute want to know.

In the case of the chinaberry (Melia azedarach) it has something to do with 21st century nativist snobbery – the chinaberry being an 18th century “immigrant” from Asia. Also, since chinaberries reseed easily and grow up fast, they possess that happy heedlessness that sends much of the gardening and landscape crowd into a fit of irrelevance.

The chinaberry is an insult to American vanity, to be sure. But in our opinion it was American technology that really turned popular sentiment against these trees.

After their introduction in Charleston, South Carolina, chinaberries seem to have spread rapidly across the South. In the many decades before air-conditioning (which became commonplace only in about 1950), they were valued as fast-growing shade plants. In some places, including parts of Texas, they’re even called “umbrella trees.”

An anonymous writer for Wood Magazine wrote this lively encomium:

“Introduced to the sundrenched American Southwest and Mexico centuries ago for shade, the chinaberry embraced its arid new home and flourished. This cousin of mahogany from China relished the hot, dry climate and responded to it with rapid growth in even the worst of soil.

“Native Americans, Mexicans, and new settlers in the barren land welcomed the new tree. Indeed, people cooled off beneath its branches, but didn’t hesitate to fell it for wood they worked into rustic furniture and tool handles, and burned for fuel.”

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Posted by Julie on 03/27 at 10:37 PM
Gardening & LandscapeMedicineSecular CustomsPermalink