Melia azedarach is a deciduous tree up to 45 m tall; bole fluted below when old, up to 30-60 (max. 120) cm in diameter, with a spreading crown and sparsely branched limbs. Bark smooth, greenish-brown when young, turning grey and fissured with age. Leaves alternate, 20-40 cm long, bipinnate or occasionally tripinnate. Leaflets 3-11, serrate and with a pungent odour when crushed. Inflorescence a long, axillary panicle up to 20 cm long; flowers showy, fragrant, numerous on slender stalks, white to lilac; sepals 5-lobed, 1 cm long; petals 5-lobed, 0.9 cm long, pubescent; staminal tube deep purple blue, 0.5 cm long, 1 cm across. Fruit a small, yellow drupe, nearly round, about 15 mm in diameter, smooth and becoming a little shrivelled, slightly fleshy. Seed oblongoid, 3.5 mm x 1.6 mm, smooth, brown and surrounded by pulp. Because of the divided leaves, the generic name is derived from the Greek ‘melia’ (the ash); the specific name comes from the Persian ‘azzadirackt’ (noble tree).
History of cultivation
This tree, well known as Persian lilac, is native to India but is now grown in all the warmer parts of the world; in many of these places it is naturalized. It is widely planted in Nigeria, for example.
A tree of the subtropical climatic zone, the natural habitat of M. azedarach is seasonal forest, including bamboo thickets, Tamarindus woodland. It is highly adaptable and tolerates a wide range of conditions; for example, the most frost-tolerant cultivars can be planted outdoors in sheltered areas in the British Isles.
It is the quickest growing tree I have ever seen. This was planted as a small seedling plant given to me by a friend, each stem was no thicker than my thumb and about 70 cm tall in 2007. There is another on the other side of the garden in the left hand border.