Gardening Articles by Russell Fransham

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Melia azederach in winter
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Winter berries
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Spring foliage with flowers of Melia
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Melia Azederach

Spring again.

Blossom and new leaves bursting from bare branches... a promise of Summer's abundance after chilly Winter months. Planting time and planning it, is always fun.

Garden space is too valuable to waste on plants that only 'do it' for six weeks of the year, so like any landlord, I only take on garden tenants who can pay their rent all year long.

One of the most interesting (rent-paying) deciduous trees for small gardens is Melia azederach, the 'chinaberry', 'bead tree' or 'Persian Lilac'. It is native to the warm-temperate belt stretching from the Middle East, through India to China and South East Asia and down to Australia.

It is common around Northland and is a medium-sized, fast-growing umbrella-shaped tree, ideal as a lawn or patio tree for Summer shade and often planted as a street tree because it is easily trained to have a single un-branched trunk to two or three metres below the lush crown of foliage. There's a big one in Whangarei's Cameron St. Mall and a couple of grand old specimens have provided welcome shade for generations of kids at Whangarei Intermediate school in Rust Avenue.

Unlike most deciduous trees, the Melia, which is a member of the mostly evergreen Mahogany family, is never quite bare. In Winter its leafless branches are hung with bunches of pale yellow, bead-like berries. Native wood-pigeons come to gorge on them all through the year, whether they're ripe or green. In my own garden I've planted several of them specifically to bring the pigeons in close and they provide abundant fast food stations for kukupa all around Whangarei city.

In October the clouds of little lilac flowers, scented like warm chocolate, appear in big bunches on the bare branches just before the leaves emerge.

The ferny leaves make a lush, dark canopy of foliage through Summer, hiding the masses of unripe berries, although the wood pigeons still seem to find them.

The Melia holds its leaves till July or sometimes August when they turn yellow and drop, only to appear again in late September and October, a matter of only six or eight weeks later.

In India and the Middle East the bead tree has been traditionally used in various lotions and medicines for centuries yet if eaten in large quantities it can be toxic to people and farm animals. Its apparently the ripe berries which are the most toxic part.

Even then, an adult would have to eat heaps of them to get sick and I know of no reports of poisoning in NZ.

It's a certainty that kids at Whangarei Intermediate will have tried them from time to time with no serious results. All the same, I would make a point of teaching kids that they're not edible, along with potato berries, Rhododendrons, Arum lilies, Oleander and Daphne to name a few far more deadly garden plants.

The Melia is a tree that pays its rent every month of the year, always looking handsome, interesting and different at every season.

Its moderate size and graceful shape means it does't out-grow its welcome on a small property.

Go up close and have a sniff while they bloom this month.

Planted close to the house they provide delicious Spring perfume and deep Summer shade, then sunshine in late Winter when you need it most.

And best of all, it brings the wood pigeons to the garden all year long.

Copyright Russell Fransham 2005