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Non-native Chinaberry thrives in Georgia
Master Gardeners have nostalgic memories of tree
A trio of Chinaberry trees grow in Marlene Williamson’s yard in Flowery Branch. The Chinaberry tree is not a native to North America, but the tree has thrived in some places in Georgia.

Although not native to the region, the Chinaberry with its lavender flowers, shady foliage and towering height holds many memories for people.

Joe Kidd, a Hall County Master Gardener, is one such person. He remembers the tree, also known as the Persian lilac or Texas umbrella tree, growing at his mother’s house and knows a thing or two about it.

“Years ago my mother wanted to plant a Chinaberry tree beside the house,” he said. “I did not want a Chinaberry tree. So I dug a hole in the red clay and planted it there.

“The tree was never fertilized, but it grew and grew, and the Chinaberries made a mess on the yard,” he continued.

This single story negates the Georgia Native Plant Society advice regarding Chinaberry trees. The society says the non-native plants should not be planted in Georgia because of complications with minerals in the soil.

“However, I remember that I planted a Chinaberry tree in red clay and it lived without problems,” Kidd said.

The Chinaberry tree gained popularity in the South in the 1800s. Around 1830, the species flourished in the Georgia climate, despite it not being suited to the Georgia soil or wildlife.

But somehow, the Chinaberry sank its roots into the Georgia clay and decided to stay.

Admired as an ornamental on plantation properties, Chinaberry trees can grow from 20 to 45 feet tall in the South. They are even larger in more tropical climates, making them ideal in settings needing shade or decoration.

The berries develop after the flowers, providing food for birds. But the berries are not safe for humans to eat.

According to the Hall County Extension Office, the fruits are toxic if consumed in large quantities, and the chemicals in the seeds have some insecticidal properties. Yet, the fruit  can be used for other purposes, especially in Hall County Master Gardener Rachel Schneider’s memory.

“I have a necklace made of Chinaberries,” she said. “I bought it in Charleston, S.C., around 15 years ago. The fruit is highly poisonous, but our grandparents and great-grandparents used it to keep the worms out of their dried apples.”

Because of its poisonous quality and the tendency to grow in colonies, the Chinaberry tree is considered an invasive species. Some believe the non-native plant has become less popular because it competes with native plants and causes their demise.

“The serviceberry tree or the American Elderberry would be good substitutes,” said Betty Daunhauer, another Master Gardener.

However, many do have fond memories of the trees, such as climbing them, playing with the berries or enjoying the shade of the foliage.

“When you are a little boy and you climb one and the limb breaks, it hurts!” Master Gardener Al Pannell said.