Chinaberry


Lately I’ve noticed more traditional livestock animals in residential areas. I’m sure 4-H has a lot to do with that along with selling cropland for development. Whatever the case, this new group of hobby farmers should be aware of a common invasive tree, the chinaberry.
Chinaberries are relatives to mahogany and were introduced back in the 1700’s as an ornamental. Since that time they have thrived. Invading adjacent areas, they limit species diversity by shading out other plants. They also contain chemicals that inhibit the growth of other plants.
These fast-growing weedy trees have few natural enemies, live on a wide range of soil types and can tolerate shade. Trees can attain heights of 50 feet, although few specimens approach that. My neighborhood is full of them as are areas around the high school.
Chinaberry has huge leaves finely divided into many tiny sections with toothed edges. Botanists refer to this leaf pattern as bipinnately compound. Yellow fall foliage is striking. After the leaves fall they seem to shrivel up and disappear. Raking is seldom necessary.
Plants bloom in early to late spring. Clusters of fragrant pinkish-lavender to white flowers cover these fern-like trees. The berrylike single-seeded fruits (drupes) are light yellow to white and appear from summer to fall. They often persist for most of the winter, occasionally getting blown of the trees by strong winds.
The fruit color should immediately set off a caution light in your brain. I know of no white berries (or in this case drupes) which are edible. In fact, chinaberry fruits are quite poisonous to humans, pets and livestock. Birds, such as chickens, turkeys and ducks appear to be unaffected by them.
Few animals eat the fruits as their bitter flavor is a strong deterrent. However, in situations where browsers like goats run low on other food sources, they might turn to chinaberry fruits, twigs, leaves and bark. This could pose a serious problem. I’d eliminate chinaberries in areas where pets or small children could ingest any parts of them.
My preferred method for permanent removal involves cutting them down and treating the stumps immediately with a concentrated solution of glyphosate (Round-up). Garlon is effective too. Always follow label directions when using any pesticide. Clean up all debris from the area before allowing grazing animals or small children access.
This plant may have an upside. Sometimes toxicity is not a bad thing. People have used chinaberry leaves to repel fleas. Some use crushed berries as a natural detergent to wash clothes. Hard seeds have been used for centuries to make rosary beads and bark extracts have even been used to stun fish.
Strong antimicrobial and antiviral properties and a long history of herbal use have encouraged medicinal research on chinaberry. Chinaberry leaves contain a protein called meliacine, which fights herpes simplex type 1. Aids research is also ongoing. Chinaberry extracts have also been used to treat intestinal worms. This is exciting, but please don’t self-medicate. While research presents intriguing information, this plant contains toxins that can kill you.

Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School.

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About tedmanzer

I grew up in Old Town Maine and got a B.S. at the University of Maine in Plant Sciences/ minor in Botany. From there I moved to West Virginia and earned a M.S. in Agronomy at WVU. I also met my wife there. She grew up in rural WV as the daughter of tenant farmers who raised cattle and hogs. Their lifestyle at times was one of subsistence and I learned a lot from them. I've always been a foraging buff, but combining my formal botanical knowledge with their practical 'Foxfire-type' background opened up my eyes a little more. I now teach agriculture to high school students at Northeastern High School in Elizabeth City, NC. My wife teaches with me and we make a great team. I also write a weekly nature/foraging column for the local paper (dailyadvance.com) and frequently publish articles in several other newspapers in northeastern North Carolina. I also have written several Christian nature/adventure novels that I plan to publish eventually. One is a five book family saga I call the 'Forgotten Virtues' series. In the first book, Never Alone, a young boy comes of age after his father dies in a plane crash, and he has to make it alone. Never Alone is now available in paperback, Kindle and Nook. The second book, Strange Courage, takes Carl from his High School graduation to his recovery from a nasty divorce. The third book, Second Chances, takes Carl from his ex-wife's death and the custody of his son to his heroic death at age 59. The fourth book, Promises Kept, depicts how his grandchildren react and adjust to his death. In the final book, Grandfather's Way, his youngest and most timid granddaughter emerges from the shadow of her overachieving family and accomplishes more in four months than most do in a lifetime. I use many foraging references with a lot of the plants I profile in these articles in those books.
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