Syringas are my most hated of alien, invasive plants in Durban. They spread like wildfire, grow easily in this climate and are a task to remove. Since coming back to Durban last October I have seen more and more of them, and it seems that many people (myself included) don’t know the details.

A few Google searches revealed that what we erroneously call ‘Syringa’ is in fact Melia azedarach, the ‘Chinaberry’ Tree, which is part of the mahogany family and native to India, southern China and Australia. While some of the facts about the tree sounded familiar; the use of its leaves for medicinal purposes (also in Indian and Zulu communities in KZN) and the fact that its berries are toxic to humans but not to birds (which facilitates the spreading of the plant), I was surprised to find that it is commonly used as timber.

Melia azedarach has a timber of high quality, but is generally underutilised. Apparently, the seasoning of the wood is also relatively simple as it dries without cracking or warping and is resistant to fungal infection. I quickly did the Math. Durban is overrun by these alien and invasive trees that grow to around 12m, which equals a lot of crack-free, water and fungus resistant timber, that could be used as building materials or to make furniture etc. as in the case of Koop.

Surely this could be done at a municipal level too? The eradication of invasive alien trees, the planting of new, indigenous ones, and in the process, skill-sharing, creating awareness about alien plants, and producing resistant and sturdy timber that could be used for building or to create furniture for schools… Seems like a good idea to me. Are there facts that are missing? Is Syringa / Chinaberry as worthwhile as the Internet suggests? What do you think?

Syringa berries

Syringa berries

Common Names: Chinaberry, Pride-of-India, Persian Lilac, White Cedar or Bead Tree
Synonymy: M. australis Sweet; M. japonica G. Don; M. sempervirens Sw.
Origin: Asia

Syringa flowers

Syringa flowers

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58 Responses to Syringas

  1. Sons March 12, 2009 at 4:53 am #

    Hey Mol-d

    My Dad works a lot with wood and has recently turned his hand to making us some shelves. He refuses pointblank to use Syringa as apparently it is well-known for warping.

    Roger’s brother and his wife had some very expensive custom made doors made for them out of Syringa and they’ve warped quite severely. Their good friend who works for a well-known door company in South Africa told them they should have consulted with him first because they would never make doors out of Syringa because it warps the way it does…

    So who knows…

  2. Niall McNulty March 12, 2009 at 5:05 am #

    I think this is a really good, practical idea. Not sure about the warping but perhaps something could be done to counteract that?

    Another solution, but more long term, would be to plant strangler figs in the branches of larger, invasive trees and then let them do their work.

  3. emme March 12, 2009 at 11:16 am #

    great idea smile. garden guerilla warfare. in slow-mo.

  4. emme March 12, 2009 at 11:22 am #

    i think the koop stuff is made from gum. they had a few peices at the suss’t exhibition at kznsa gallery over christmas and i seem to recall that was the wood.

  5. Des March 12, 2009 at 2:32 pm #

    Hello Sons and Niall!
    Great Website + idea>

    Chinaberry- sounds like it should be a native Durban plant….

    My sister has a nursery in Ramsgate-
    Plants not humans.

    There are loads of these trees that need to be cut down. A potential use is as a natural insecticide perhaps fungicide. However there are probably less toxic and more effective plants out there. Neem is related to Chinaberry and is used as an insecticide…Sweet neem is the curry leaf-
    super healthy and great flavour.
    I have used it to kill whitefly in the greenhouse- it works lukka.
    The trouble with Chinaberry is that it is so toxic that I would not even want to use it as firewood…

  6. Steve March 13, 2009 at 12:53 pm #

    Great site okies. Sonya told me about it today, and I’ve really enjoyed checking out the discussions.

    I share your hatred of the syringas, but I’m pretty sure that if they could be used practically on a large scale they would be – just like the pine trees and eucalypts.

    emme is korrek, the stuff at koop was made from saligna, which is a type of eucalyptus.

  7. Steve March 13, 2009 at 1:01 pm #

    I also liked the idea of planting strangler figs on syringas, but you would have to kill the offensive invader first.

    I’m not sure if that’s too radical, even for guerrilla gardeners.

  8. mol-d March 13, 2009 at 2:20 pm #

    i also like the idea of the figs but i fear it would be too slow. we have a strangler fig in our garden that has taken ages to kill the other tree. by the time it kills one syringa, 50 others will have grown.. what to do?

  9. Sons March 13, 2009 at 2:36 pm #

    Ja, ja – I got my Syringa confused with my Salinga… sorry guys… and after I enjoyed my little ‘warping’ tirade so much too… ha

  10. brendan March 16, 2009 at 8:29 pm #

    kill the invaders!!!

  11. Hedmekanik March 18, 2009 at 12:04 pm #

    Stranglers rock! If we left the city alone for ten years it’d be one rock-breaking ficus jungle.

  12. zainhansrod March 27, 2009 at 6:44 am #

    hi guys,

    this syringa is apparently a toxic tree, however i am looking for its counterpart called ‘Neem’ or Azadirachta indica which has great medicinal properties, can anyone help as to where to find it?


  13. Niall McNulty March 28, 2009 at 7:06 am #

    Hi Zain. Hindu priests and sangomas in Durban both make a medicine from the leaves of the syringa. I wonder if Neem isn’t the same tree?

  14. zainhansrod March 30, 2009 at 7:51 am #

    Hi Niall,

    Well after enquiring about the syringa the botanists say its toxic and are cutting it down where ever they (parks dept.) find it.

    With regards to Neem it does come from the same family of Meliaceae hence the leaves resemble to the syringa a lot!

    I just had the botanists identify and isolate the syringa and the Neem, so it is 2 different tree(s).

    Know where to find it?

  15. Sonya March 31, 2009 at 5:45 am #

    Hi Zain – thanks for that information. I have heard of neem, I know it is used in natural shampoos for clearing up dandruff. I seem to remember the medicinal use of it originated from India, but don’t quote me on that.

  16. Niall McNulty March 31, 2009 at 8:29 am #

    Hi Zain.

    None of the nurseries in Durban seem to stock Neem. My advice would be to buy some seeds online and germinate the tree yourself.

    They are selling Neem seeds on eBay and they seem reasonably priced (

    Good luck and let us know if you have any success with them.


  17. GrahamL October 13, 2009 at 9:21 am #

    what bird is that in the first photo of the Syringa tree.

  18. smellen October 13, 2009 at 3:55 pm #

    hi graham,

    i’m not sure – it is a stock photo i got off the net..

  19. shaggy November 22, 2009 at 4:44 pm #

    Without doing any searches, my first comment on this is that I know Syringa wood is bad to use on a braai fire (possible even poisonous- due to the smoke being in direct contact with the food) but if you are just using it warm yourself up I suppose it has its uses as a fuel wood. As mentioned above it warps too so is no use as a wood for woodworking. Perhaps the wood could have other uses such as construction in gardens, supports or fences etc (Where warping is not as serious a problem) also just be careful that your fences don’t start resprouting!

    But try my idea with multiple strangler figs, perhaps it may just work?

    Syringas also cannot withstand a chainsaw! 🙂

  20. Custom Doors December 19, 2009 at 11:24 am #

    Syringa’ is in fact Melia azedarach,the ‘Chinaberry’ Tree,which is part of the mahogany family and native to India, southern China and Australia.Melia azedarach has a timber of high quality,Also onething is that some of very expensive custom made doors made for them out of Syringa and they’ve warped quite severely.Their good friend who works for a well-known door company in South Africa.they should have consulted with him first because they would never make doors out of Syringa because it warps the way it does.

  21. a tree lover........ June 18, 2010 at 7:56 pm #

    So what guys? what makes a plant an alien? —– is it only because someone else determined it was? and who has to cut it down and build doors with it anyway…leave it to do the job it’s supposed to do!!!!! offer us oxygen and shade…..

  22. Smile June 19, 2010 at 10:08 am #

    Hey Tree Lover

    There is a difference between alien and invasive plants.

    Invasive plants are bad because they destroy natural habitat for indigenous plants and animals. Some also take water out of the ground.

  23. Lion August 17, 2010 at 3:25 pm #

    1. There’s no description of how the doormakers seasoned, cut, fitted, or protected the wood, but my untreated rails and styles have remained intact for years, in our fluctuating climate.

    In California, Chinaberries grow large and fall under their own weight, when one side is shaded. Sawed limbs were cracked inside, probably from considerable stress, more than the drying.

    Also, while the centers of the branches appear solid, a thin core of pith is soft and can be removed by fingernail, if it is exposed by the saw.

    This morning, I read that Europeans used it for flooring — essentially, smaller pieces fit together by tongue and groove.

    2. Chinaberry trees do spread, to be sure, but have not driven native plants to the brink of extinction on uncultivated, lowland soils.

    I don’t recall it growing, spontaneously, high into the foothills.

    Stray Chinaberries haven’t deprived nearby landscaping, in any noticeable way, and have perhaps even shielded it from the elements.

    3. Is it poisonous?

    Mature fruit is sweet and said to be eaten by children, animals, birds, and bats, with no ill effects, even after gorging on them.

    Green fruits have a nauseating and bitter flavor and have allegedly been used as a fish poison.

    There are extravagant (generally hypothetical) warnings of bloody diarrhea, organ failure, and nervous system anomalies in humans. I have never encountered any medical case histories, which clarify what was eaten and how, although common sense tells me ripeness is a factor.

    An oil is pressed from the seeds, and only used externally. How poisonous are they, if they may be used on open sores? Articles of leather are protected by the oil and, presumably, touched by hand, as would the beads.

    The sap is said to be collected, from the base of the tree, in springtime, for a refreshing drink. Does the season matter?

    The bitter leaves are repellent and stunt the development of insects, yet they are supposedly used in curries (with other vegetables.) Does it help that they’re cooked? No special precautions are mentioned for using them as a spray, in which case, exposure would be considerable.

    Having followed the leads of others, I barbecued over the wood with no ill effects. I’ve touched the litter four hours, and my clothes have been saturated by the sawdust, causing me no problems at all.

    Overall, the tree has proven to be far less dangerous than so many fearmongers, quick to rationalize their needless interference in the lives of their fellow adults.

    In the hands of thoughtful people, it is certainly more of a resource than a nuisance,

  24. mol-d August 17, 2010 at 6:08 pm #

    hi lion, some interesting points. good to have a perspective from outside of south africa. thanks! i was surprised that you say the berries aren’t poisonous as we were always told that they were..

    i suppose it could be more of a resource than a nuisance in the right hands..

  25. Matthew September 4, 2010 at 3:13 pm #

    We have a mature Syringa/Chinaberry at our house in Johannesburg. It is an awesome shade tree but very messy come August/September when it starts dropping those berries.

    We have plants and grass growing beneath it. We had to use shade grass, but otherwise it doesn’t seem to have any adverse impact on other plant life.

    When our dog was still a small puppy she used to love eating the mostly dry berries. They never seemed to have any adverse affect. The birds also love sitting in the tree.

    It blocks the sun in summer, and lets the light through in winter, which reduces energy consumption quite dramatically (no air conditioning and don’t need much heating in Winter). Obviously other trees can do this too, but would take many years to grow to the same size.

    I don’t think I would advocate growing one from seed, mainly because of its bad reputation. But I am loathe to cut this one down as it adds so much to our garden.

  26. mol-d September 5, 2010 at 10:27 pm #

    hi matthew,
    i definitely think you should keep this tree in your garden! we have an established syringa as well and have left it. i would definitely pull out any seedlings though… these trees are invasive, adapt easily and grow really quickly!

  27. Clive October 3, 2010 at 9:12 pm #

    Just debark the tree. After a while it dies and the birds love to use it as a vantage point.

  28. mol-d October 7, 2010 at 9:07 am #

    @clive, do you mean ring-barking? and if so, how much do you take off? have tried before but found that syringas can be pretty stubborn sometimes…

  29. Rosemary October 15, 2010 at 10:19 pm #

    I was told years ago that the Indians in Durban use Syringa trees for cooking – I’m not sure if it is the leaves or the berries, but at any rate they refuse to cut the trees down because of their culinary value. When all’s said and done, beauty is in the eye of the beholder – personally I think they are beautiful trees – my heart gladdens when I see them burst into their pale pink flowers in early spring.

  30. khalid October 16, 2010 at 7:43 am #

    hey rosemary

    syringa leaves are boiled and the water used to treat some skin ailments.
    crushed leaves mixed with some ghee is apparently also effective in the treatment of shingles/chicken pox….gets rid of the itchiness much like calamine lotion or a tumeric paste.
    the moringaberry/drumstick tree leaves and seeds are edible. syringaberries…never seen it. i am indiansouthafrican.
    in jozi doesnt appear to be invasive…but my piece of bush ….pretty lilac flowers et al is an infestation.
    am looking for one of those handdrills so i can get some diesel/garlon into them.

    thanks now

  31. khalid October 16, 2010 at 7:50 am #

    PS wonder if tree fellers offer alien pest control service, somebody got any leads.

  32. Rosemary October 18, 2010 at 10:15 pm #

    Dear Khalid
    Regarding your intention to drill garlon and diesel into your beautiful syringa tree, it seems an awful pity to treat a noble life form like that. Is it actually doing you any harm? Admittedly they spawn seedlings, but if it is in a private garden surely you can pull out any young ones.
    Do think twice before doing anything drastic.

  33. warren March 28, 2011 at 10:26 am #


    its not what the tree has done to Khalid or any of us. its what it could potentially do to surrounding habitats the species that live there. As you acknowledge syringas are very invasive unfortunately, and while Khalid might be able to remove seedlings on his property, he has no way of controlling those on neighbouring properties.

    As far as the syringa being a noble life form, i would beg to differ. That would be like saying malaria or tapeworms are noble life forms. but then again it depends on your world view.

    I say get rid of it and plant and indigenous tree in its place.

  34. Eric May 16, 2011 at 10:48 pm #

    There seems to be a bit if confusion between Saringa and saligna ??? the latter of the two is quite prone to warping.

  35. Eric May 16, 2011 at 11:01 pm #

    Remember every tree, invasive or not, Produces high volumes of oxygen while at the same time reduces carbon dioxide!!! Think twice before cutting down a tree. In California the eucalyptus trees are being eradicated at the expense of losing thousands of honey bee colonies. How stupid is that??? All for the sake of promoting indiginous trees which take forever to grow and cost a fortune!!!Is it all about money?

  36. warren botes May 26, 2011 at 8:10 pm #

    I agree with you on that. there are also a few raptors that use gums in this country for nesting and roosting so i see you point there. But i really think there should be a move toward replacing exotics with indigenous equivalents. But i agree the removal of these plant must be considered in context. ie does the tree have an active bird nest or bee colony, and can they be moved or encouraged to move somewhere else (the birds and bees haha!). but in most cases natural indigenous vegetation can support a much larger range of species than exotics. this is particularly the case in durban where large areas of our open space are green but essentially ecologically barren syringa forests, with only a few adaptable species using them.

  37. Louis July 17, 2011 at 8:03 am #

    I have been involved on a voluntary basis with the eradication of aliens over the last 17 years. And believe me, the syringa is highly invasive. I have seen it in the Krugersdorp area, in the Western and the Southern Cape.
    I know they are beautiful trees, but one has no control over where the seeds go. Birds will spread them all over. So one beautiful tree becomes a huge problem for a lot of other people. I would say, do the right thing and kill them, ASAP!

  38. mol-d July 18, 2011 at 9:29 am #

    hi louis, i agree. they are a terror! kill them and plant something indigenous in their place…

  39. chris September 14, 2011 at 2:26 pm #

    chopped 5 down in my yard, have made all sorts of things, a bit of warping not much. busy with a four poster bed at the moment…

  40. mol-d September 14, 2011 at 10:10 pm #

    hey chris,

    send us in some pics, please.. i’d dig to see the kind of furniture a nuisance like syringas has produced!

    just attach some images to an email and see into:


  41. Nick October 4, 2011 at 1:27 pm #

    Hi everyone

    It’s plain and simple, if its an invader, its got to go!
    It interferes with our natural water sources and gardens have to be regularly watered.
    Eradicating eucalyptus out of the states, well good, because honey bees aren’t home to the states either, they are sorting out two problems all in one.
    A willow tree, which is an invader as well, can drink up to a 1000 litres of water per day.
    People that I heard of had a natural fountain on their farm 100 years ago as told by the great grandfather.
    A willow started growing there and in time as the tree grew bigger, the fountain dried up.
    Years later the willow was cut down and the fountain to their surprise started flowing again.
    A eucalyptus’ root system goes so far down, that they tap into our underground water resource.
    Beauty…what is the price we and our fauna and flora will pay in the long run.
    We are the ones that have to correct our forefathers doings and mistakes.
    O, I love trees and birds very much and it give me great pleasure to see birds eating flowers, fruit etc from an indigenous tree and to see there’s a balance(relationship) between them.

    So I say, bring on the war against invasive plants and not just trees.

  42. irene nair October 25, 2011 at 8:08 am #

    Hi.the leaves of the indian syringa relaxes the uterus after birth. It helps with inconsistancy. My Syringa is my friend. Please don’t hurt my friend. If the white people say the Yew and the OLive are sacred it is respected. Nobody is asking you to eat it. This tree is sacred. It’s fruit looks like an olive. Maybe this is anointing oil. I grew up with the SYringa’s. My shade. My friend.Parvathie…

  43. warren botes November 2, 2011 at 9:12 pm #

    Hi Irene,

    Yew and Olives are not invasive in this country. And its not white people who say these trees are sacred. Its chinese and middle eastern people. I respect your spiritual views, but from an ecological point of view, an indigenous forest in any part of the world (which could be an syringa forest in India) will alway support more life (which I feel is more scared than one species)than a monoforest of one species. which is what syringa unfortunately does in this country. I dont think we should put sacered value of one species above the sacerd value of the diversity of life.

  44. Louis November 3, 2011 at 6:36 am #

    @Irene Nair:
    I understand the olive, in fact all species of olive, are invasive in Australia, and classified as such. And when that happens, they go, sacred or not.
    I have recently moved to a town where one of the most invasive plants happens to be syringa.
    I agree that it is a pretty tree, but so are a number of invasive species; many of them were brought in because they were beautiful garden plants.
    So please do not let your “religious” feelings get in the way of protecting our very sensitive environment. To me that is something special, even (to use your terminology) “sacred”.
    On a more practical note: To eradicate syringa, the following works:
    Smaller plants: Pull them out. I am not sure what happens if bigger plants are pulled out: when roots break off, do they grow again?
    Larger plants: cut off close to the ground and treat the stump with Imazapyr, sold under trade names like Chopper and Hatchet. I am using a ten percent solution in water (very effective), but one could probably use a weaker solution. The same solution works for eucalyptus, lantana and manatoka, to name a few.
    By the way, what is your feelings regarding the Indian mynah? Are they also sacred? That is a good example of an invasive species that should be exterminated ASAP.
    Best wishes.

  45. Bridgette Devin that be Irish :) Tree Hugger December 26, 2011 at 4:38 pm #

    Hi Folks . I am a tree hugger so I have some other relevant questions concerning invasive species such as the syringa and indian mynah . We are aware from the discussions above of that there is a split sentiment wrt dealing with invasive species . My questions are therefore :- 1. Colonists were invasive ( still are in certain parts of the world ) why did we not cull them ? 2. Invasive species only have negative properties or characteristics to humans and most of that sentiment evolves around money , insecticide and drug companies .
    3. THere is a lot in nature that has not been investigated or thoroughly explored so we remain ignrant of the secrets plants hold yet what we do know is that they are our saviours not so ? Have any of the doom sayers ever considered the relationship of oxygent to water in the atmosphere ?
    4. Humans serve absolutely NO purpose on earth . On the contrary they are the greatest force of mass destruction . Their very survival depends on the destruction of something . when are we going to address this issue ?
    5. Umlike humans , alien plant invaders actually DO contribute to the environment ! Even in a syringa forest , its inhabitants will have to breath fresh air or are the humans going to partition the air into invader and non invader produced air ?
    See ? THe list can go on and evolve into a litany of issues but these are points to ponder on before raising that ax or poisoning the trees huh ?
    Enjoy your collective lives …. or what you have left of them . Isn’t it wonderful that the human life span is short and they develop dementia ( most anyway ) half way through ?

  46. Erik May 13, 2012 at 2:40 pm #

    Ok, interesting debate. Here’s my 2cent’s worth!Humans fortunately do serve a purpose and one main responsibility is taking care and maintaining the balance of nature. I do agree that we have not lived up to that. A step in the right direction, however, would be to irradicate all invasive species. If trees and indian mynas become more worth hugging than looking after the environment then we’re being ignorant and we’re taking the green thing too far. How would you feel if someone just walk into your house and throw you out. Well, that’s what mynas do to other birds. They steal their food too. One first need to understand how sensitive the ecology

  47. Ferret October 15, 2012 at 8:49 am #

    Hi there,

    The leaves of the syringa are very medicinal. Together with Neem, Sacred Basil, Banyan, Banana and other trees, the syringa is very valued in Indian customs and traditions. I understand it may be invasive and alien to South Africa but that should be overlooked because of its medicinal value. It has antimicrobial and antiviral properties. It is used extensively in Indian homes for Diabetes ( the leaves and ground and mixed with tumeric and taken as pills before meals), chicken pox and measles (the above paste is smeared on the body, much like camomile lotion. Don’t cut down trees because they are “alien”. Ayurveda states that God has given us all we need to heal ourselves (the land of your birth should have all the necessary herbs needed to heal yourself). Live and let live.

  48. kogie pillay February 9, 2013 at 2:45 pm #


    Having read most comments, my only concerns are
    1.The berries when they fall to the ground give an offensive and sharp smell.
    2. The root system is difficuly to control, as new shoots pop up all the time.
    3. Will this be a hassle near a pool.
    4. Do the roots spread, taking all nourishment from other plants in the area.
    5. Do the roots, if within a garden grow and leave the homeowner with unnecssary costs, ie. shoultd the roots gro under the foundation and lifting such in time to come may cause serious problems.
    6. The tree leave being so gree, will this cause moss in the walls and windows.

    We are building a home, and there are three trees in the location of the garden.

    Should the above apply, then the trees must go.

    Kindly give me advise.

    Many thanks’
    K Pillay

  49. mol-d February 13, 2013 at 12:20 pm #

    Hi K.,

    2. New shoots do pop all the time especially if you are in Durban where everything (including Syringas) grow like mad.
    4. The trees are invasive and tend to take over whole areas if left unattended. They will take over other plants.

    The roots are not too much of an issue – not as bad as something like a fig tree. I would remove all of these though and plant some indigenous plants to attract birds etc. to your garden. See here for some examples:

  50. Philip Machanick July 19, 2013 at 8:44 am #

    Those claiming the fruit is not only nontoxic but can be eaten in large quantity are talking about a different plant. The fruit of melia azedarach (what we are talking about here contains a neurotixin and I certainly wouldn’t want to “gorge” on it:

    You want case history? Search and find:

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