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Melia azedarach L. 1753
pronounced: MEE-lee-uh az-EE-duh-rak
(Meliaceae – the white cedar family)
common names: White Cedar, Chinaberry
Melia is from the Greek word μελια (melia), the ash tree, with reference to the similarity of the leaves. The name originally came from the word for honey, μελι (meli), as several species of Ash have sweet sap. Azedarach comes from a Persian word meaning ‘noble tree’, and was the name given to a particular local poisonous tree by Avicenna, Ibn Sina (980-1037), a Persian physician-philosopher.
Melia azedarach is medium-sized tree, up to about 20 m tall with a diameter up to 60 cm. The form of the tree found in Australia is capable of growing much bigger than this, up to 45 m tall with a diameter of 120 cm in moist closed forest, but under drier and more open conditions it rarely gets above 15 m tall. The most common forms of the tree have rather long branches forming a loose open crown, rather straggly.
The tree has a shallow root system. The bark is grey-brown and smooth, becoming thick and longitudinally fissured with age. The branches are brown with prominent leaf scars and reddish brown lenticels.
The imparipinnate leaves are either bipinnate, or wholly or partly tripinnate, and more-or-less opposite, up to about 80 cm long, glabrescent; the petioles are 8 – 30 cm long, terete, lenticellate, and swollen at the base. The pinnae are in 3 – 7 pairs, opposite or nearly so, ovate or oblong-lanceolate to elliptic, 2 – 10 cm by 0.6 – 3.8 cm, the base acute to rounded, the apex acuminate. The leaf margins are highly variable: they may be entire, crenate or serrate, or a mixture of all three. The various types of leaf margins are often found on the one tree. Foliage on a young tree seems to be more serrate than that on older specimens. In dry times the tree can shed most or all of its leaves. The leaves have been used as a natural insecticide to keep with stored food, but must not be eaten as they are highly poisonous.
The inflorescence, borne on second-year wood, is an axillary, loose panicle 12 – 22 cm long, with primary branches 5 – 7.5 cm long and secondary branches anything up to 2 cm long. The flowers are small with 5 pale purple and white, or sometimes all white, petals, the stamens clustered into a cylindrical dark purple tube 6 – 8 mm long.
The fruits, yellowish brown when mature, are globular drupes about 1.5 cm in diameter, containing up to 5 seeds in a hard endocarp surrounded by a thin, succulent outer flesh. The seeds are oblong in shape, smooth and brown. The fruits hang on the tree all winter, and gradually become wrinkled and almost white. They are poisonous to humans and some other mammals, but birds are able to eat them and so disperse the seed in their droppings. Some reports suggest that 6–8 fruits can be fatal to humans. The seeds were widely used for making rosaries and other products requiring beads, before their replacement by modern plastics.
White Cedar is often planted as a shade tree because of its dense leaf covering. It is planted in parks, public gardens, stream banks, and along pavements. The flowers and the yellow fruits add to its ornamental appeal. Its usefulness in urban areas is diminished by its tendency to sprout where unwanted, and to turn pavements into dangerously slippery surfaces where the fruits fall, although this is not a problem where songbird populations are in good shape. Proper pruning of the tree, or pollarding, is necessary to produce well-formed trunk and branch structure. Pruning can also be done to open up the crown and encourage development of well-shaped limbs.
This is a good timber tree, producing wood of medium density ranging in colour from light brown to dark red, similar in appearance to Burmese Teak. Seasoning is relatively simple, in that planks dry without cracking or warping, and are resistant to fungal infection and insect infestation. Propagation can be carried out from seed, which germinates well without treatment. Cuttings of firm current-season’s growth are also usually successful. The trees photographed are by the old helipad in Nelly Bay, near the junction of Magnetic Street and Barbarra Street, Picnic Bay, and in the car park behind the Chinese restaurant in Picnic Bay.
Periodically these trees can come under attack from the hairy caterpillars of the White Cedar Moth Leptocneria reducta, colonies of which can completely defoliate the tree. The hyperlink will take you to the article on this caterpillar in Don Herbison-Evans's Lepidoptera website, and it makes fascinating reading.
Photographs taken at Picnic Bay 2009-2011, Nelly Bay 2015
Page last updated 28th December 2016