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Attack of the Chinaberries (and other tree-planting adventures)

Last month I finally planted my first tree, a Mexican plum. I didn’t expect the tiny thing to bloom for me this spring, but a couple of weeks ago past it rewarded me with a few small fragrant flowers. (We also have a five-year-old Mexican plum in our front yard, planted by the realtor right before we bought the house, and it never bloomed until this year.)

I’ve not yet been so daring up till this past year to plant a tree. in fact, most of my tree adventures have been about eradicating the junk trees I do have. Once we started to get rid of nuisance trees, I wanted to know about the good trees. I started noticing trees in our neighborhood. Once I read about Mexican plum, I suddenly started seeing it everywhere.

I’ve also fallen in love with both Arizona Cypress, whose ashy color and graceful form make such pretty barriers. I saw photos of it in a garden magazine and suddenly it was all around me. It very much stands out in a landscape if you are specifically looking at trees and not flowers. And honestly, until a year ago, all I noticed about yards were their flowers or garden plants.

I had a hard time deciding between the two but I thought it was wise to choose just one and think seriously about where to plant it. This is a big decision, I thought, because a tree is not just any perennial, it is more like building a house–a thing that lasts perhaps longer than I and becomes a part of my property’s architecture.

In our backyard we cut down at least three Hackberry trees and about five Chinaberries. There are still six huge Chinaberries left, but finances kept us from doing more. When

Chinaberries flower they are a fragrant, pretty sight. Last year a friend visiting from England collected stems of their blossoms to make an early spring bouquet, and once indoors, as their lilac-like fragrance filled the dining room, I had a moment of grace for these otherwise annoying trees. In fact, one of their other common names is Persian Lilac.

Like most “junk trees”, as they call them now, fast-growing trees are attractive in that they provide willing and fast greenery and shade to an otherwise barren landscape. One look at some of the new suburban communities that have popped up around here in the last few years, and I understand why people might be desperate for a fast tree. Developers eradicate the existing landscape and while they might prop it up with some native shrubs and hollies, it takes years for something as gorgeous as a live oak or post oak to make a statement. Not to say trees like that wouldn’t be worth these settings, especially as most of the suburbs to which I am referring are in the hill country and need something dramatic to go with the natural drama.

Planting trees requires someone to think of a landscape beyond his or her lifetime, at the very least beyond the period in which they live in their house. I know that some of the new trees I plant I will never get to see to maturity. I know this because I don’t think I will be here forever. We have too much gypsy blood in us. But it is a different state of mind when you are really planting for the future, as a gift to others.

In addition, a majority of people in the world and in cities can’t even possibly entertain planting a medium-to-large tree. Texas Gardening magazing published an article a few years ago by our local county agent and garden guy Skip Richter in which he lists “A Dozen Delightful Little Trees for Texas”. Unlike the old days when people had room for a few grand trees in their landscape, our modern landscapes are very urban. “Now lot lines are shrinking so much that you can almost reach out your window to close your neighbor’s blinds. Many people live in garden homes, townhomes, or other tight areas without an expanse to accommodate a large tree. Structures such as outbuildings, pools, and decks, as well as hardscape features like sidewalks and driveways may mean a large tree is just not appropriate for the landscape.”

The positives are that “the changes have opened up a new opportunity for small trees.” And that makes sense; we will probably be seeing more and more small trees and shrubs enter commerce than ever before. Still, for those wanting a big tree, patience is utmost. I get it, I am not a patient gardener. But I don’t want to plant anything that grows fast, gives up fast, and creates more problems for either my or future resident’s landscape.

The Mr. Smarty Plants at the Wildflower Center answered a recent question about fast-growing trees: “We rarely talk to anyone who, a few years after planting a “fast-growing tree,” were glad that they did. Fast-growing trees usually have one redeeming value, they quickly produce shade. The negative consequences are often many and quite unpleasant. Among the problems that many fast-growing trees exhibit are weak trunks, weak limbs, abundant leaf-, fruit- and twig-litter, invasive roots, insect and disease susceptibility, and so on.”

Chinaberry (Melia azedarach) is one such fast-growing tree, despite its lilac grace. Although it is in some places called “Persian Lilac”, Chinaberry is not a true lilac tree. Chinaberry was introduced into the U.S. from Asia in the 1800s, and planted en masse in the South for its fast growth and use as a cleanser. I’ve read in several places that the berries have been used in soap-making products, but there are other species of trees called Chinaberry or Soapberry that are also used for the same purpose so I suspect people get the names confused.

Chinaberry is certainly “sustainable” by today’s meaning; you chop it back and it grows again, and again, and… again. I understand why it was once so desirable as a Southern tree, especially in the days before air-conditioning. My father-in-law grew up in China Grove, North Carolina, a small Southern town named after its Chinaberry groves. He told me as kids they made slingshots out of forked chinaberry branches to shoot the berries around, there were so many of them.

It certainly provides half the shade in my garden. The other half of my trees are pecans, which have a similar form, but are native and far more sturdy and long-lived. Chinaberries might live to 30 years, and a quick hard Texas spring storm or fall’s hurricane-season winds can tear a large limb down in no time flat. Last spring’s hail storm (possibly lightning) split the most mature Chinaberry in our yard. It has about three full trunks; they often grow all akimbo by growing second trunks in odd spots, especially if they’ve been pruned. It’s only funds and time that keep us from hiring someone to tear this dangerous thing down. Then there is the matter of their berries. In fall the berries start falling, before the leaves do and seem to fall for weeks and weeks and are difficult things to rake up. If there is any sort of rain here, one will spend weeks in spring pulling out all the chinaberry seedlings from these berries.

So I am very happy with my baby Mexican plum. In a nearby neighborhood there are several mature plums and in the sunshine they grow up with long-limbed linear branches, eventually shaped like a huge teacup. Its distinct airy form looks just gorgeous in springtime when covered with tiny white blossoms. (And the bees go crazy on them.)