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A chinaberry tree is a colloquial name for the tree Melia azedarach, which grows natively in Australia, China, and India. This plant has a number of other common names, including White Cedar, Persian Lilac, Bead Tree, and Ceylon Cedar. The plant family to which chinaberries belong is called Meliaceae, a group that also includes trees from which mahogany is obtained.
The chinaberry tree is deciduous, which means that it loses its leaves seasonally. When fully grown, it is typically around 33 feet (ten meters) high, but some specimens growing in the rain forests of Australia may reach 150 feet (about 45 meters) in height. When the tree flowers, it has small, sweet-smelling lilac or purple blossoms. These eventually result in an abundance of yellow, berry-like fruits called drupes, which are an important source of food for many species of fruit-eating birds. The flowers, on the other hand, are typically unpalatable for many animals, including bees and butterflies.
Although the fruit of Chinaberry trees is popular with birds, both the fruit and the leaves are poisonous for humans. They contain toxins that damage the nerve cells, and various kinds of poisonous resin substances. The combination of toxins may even be fatal in some instances. In spite of the toxicity of the leaves, in the past they have been used in a dilute infusion of water to treat uterine cramps or period pains.
The chinaberry tree has been introduced to America and some other temperate countries. When it was first brought into the country it was considered an ornamental tree, and in some areas, plants and seeds can still be bought. Due to its toxicity, it is often considered a pest species in many American states to which it has spread. It is a highly invasive tree which has a tendency to spread rapidly, and is extremely difficult to uproot once it is established.
The wood of the chinaberry tree is considered to be of a very high quality. It is typically easy to treat, and produces planks that tend to be relatively immune to some of the common problems encountered in wood products, including fungal growth, warping, and cracking. Before the invention of plastic beads, the hard seeds of the chinaberry tree, sometimes called Chinaberry beads, were often used as beads in the manufacture of necklaces. In Europe, monks even used the seeds to make rosaries.