Down South: Chinaberry’s Rise & Fall

By Tom Poland

A lovely shade tree, I played beneath its canopy; rolled its berries in my palm. It stood seven yards beyond an old hand-dug well. I sucked nectar from delicate tubes in yellow-green tangles of fragrant honeysuckle just beyond the tree. Little did I know Mom and Dad considered that perfumed vine a pest. They tried and tried to get rid of it. Nothing worked until Granddad Poland brought in goats. They chewed it right to the ground and into oblivion.

Circa 1956, unlike today’s digital-dependent kids, I lived in a green world of trees, vines, and grass, and of all the trees in my boyhood, that shade tree, an old chinaberry, looms large, and now, lo and behold, I hear it’s a pest. My chinaberry’s an invasive? A nuisance?

“Oh shut your mouth, Little China Girl.” Say it ain’t so.

Well, it’s so. Like a bank robber in the Old West, it’s wanted. Bugwood Blog of the University of Georgia’s Center for Invasive Species requests we report chinaberries’ location. Times sure do change; once upon a time Southerners rolled out the welcome mat for chinaberries. I mentioned this to a Southern woman, Dreamcatcher, and days later she sent me a message.

“Every old Southern homeplace boasted at least one chinaberry tree. But like most old Southern cultures it has been erased from our history. Why? The answer is surprising.

We are mandated by our government to not only be tolerant of but to embrace cultures and ideas that differ from ours. Yet our government dictates that plant species that are not native to our area are inherently evil and must be eradicated. Life in the backwoods was tough to say the least. Everything had a purpose. The chinaberry tree, aka poor mans shade tree, aka umbrella tree, was very important to a working farm. It provided shade around the homesite. The leaves were used in the dog pen to prevent fleas. The pulp in the berry was used to make a healing salve for sores on cattle. Berries were fed to hogs to prevent worms. The ladies of the house would string the berry seed to make jewelry. You, my sweet chinaberry tree, worked hard for us in the backwoods but now you must die. Such is progress.”

Dreamcatcher continues, offering a warning: “Look out honeybees. You were imported from Europe. The Native Americans called you ‘White man flies.’ The natives said white men made everything work, even the flies. Who knows, you may be next to be considered evil. You just never know what the powers to be decide.”

She makes a point. Man, the hypocrite, sets himself apart from nature. We have standards for other living things but they don’t apply to us. But what about that nettlesome chinaberry? How did it get here? From southeastern China it came to and through the ports of Charleston and Savannah where it commenced to spread across the South. Our legendary, some would say notorious, summers, made it a hero. Long before air conditioning was on the drawing board, people valued chinaberries for their shade. Even so, that didn’t keep writers like William Faulkner from associating chinaberries with plain old poor folks like the hardworking widow, Mrs. Littlejohn.

“From Mrs. Littlejohn’s kitchen the smell of frying ham came. A noisy cloud of sparrows swept across the lot and into a chinaberry tree beside the house, and in the high soft vague blue swallows stooped and swirled in erratic indecision, their cries like strings plucked at random.”—The Hamlet.
Well, poor folks needed shade, too.

As for being eradicated, chinaberries are still out there. A tough tree it is. Drought tolerant, pest and disease resistant, and fast growing, it’s hung in there. Resisting man’s edicts, now, that’s a different matter. No longer is it “exotic;” it’s invasive. Like some smeared politician, it lost its support. Well, all that’s fine and dandy but what really turned public opinion against the chinaberry was the flick of a switch. Air conditioning. People laud loyalty as an admirable quality but let a new way come along and they’ll throw an old practice into the ditch. “Video killed the radio star,” and air conditioning killed the chinaberry. Why sit beneath a tree when newfangled machines filled with Freon chill the air. Farewell chinaberry. You gave us homemade necklaces and never needed fossil fuels.

Today, when I stand in Mom’s backyard I still see that tree. It stood where a cyclone fence edges a cascading water feature; koi once idled time away where honeysuckle once tangled up our yard. “Once” is the key word. Lot of changes since 1956. Got city water now. The old hand-dug well is capped off. I used to stare over its edge and watch water trickle in from the east as ripples reflected the sky.

Circa 1961 a windstorm gust blew out the chinaberry’s top; split it asunder. Men cut it down. The dog-gone fragrant honeysuckle was no more, goat-gone. Today, a deck stands where a beautiful shrub with lavender-purple trumpet-like blooms grew. Gone. Just to its side that big chinaberry ruled the sky. Long gone but its ghostly memories tell me something. Chances are my childhood home was once the site of an old homeplace. Maybe that’s why my parents chose to build there in the first place. Good shade.

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Author: Rachel Howell

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