by Riverdave Owen - September 13, 2017


The Chinaberry tree is a species of the Mahogany family that is native to the foothills of the Himalaya Mountains.  It is also known by the common English name of Persian Lilac because of its fragrant light blue inflorescence. I found it popping up in empty lots and backyards all over the Boudanath community of Kathmandu, Nepal this summer as I walked to my classes at the Rangjung Yeshe Institute. Finding the tree thriving in its native range was particularly satisfying to me because of my familiarity with it as a naturalized and at times invasive member of the landscape in my home state of North Carolina in the USA.


I associate the Chinaberry tree with African American communities in my state. It was introduced into the southern United States around 1830 as an ornamental. Particularly in rural areas in wintertime, it is easily recognized with its persistent chickpea-like seeds drooping down in clusters from leafless branches. Although the seeds have a level of toxicity, a number of sources indicate that the Chinaberry tree’s root bark, leaves and berries were all used with special care by African Americans in their medicinal herbal preparations. 


Born in 1891, Zora Neale Hurston was an African American novelist, folklorist and close friend of my grandmother Clifford Miller Owen when they lived as neighbors in Eau Gallie, Florida.  Zora discovered the Chinaberry to be a childhood cosmic tree. In her autobiography Dusk Tracks On A Road, Ms. Hurston described her experience with the trees in her front yard in Eatonville, Florida as follows: 


“But no matter whether my probings made me happier or sadder, I kept on probing to know. For instance, I had a stifled longing. I used to climb to the top of one of the huge Chinaberry trees which guarded our front gate, and look out over the world. The most interesting thing I saw was the horizon. Every way I turned, it was there, and the same distance away. Our house then, was in the center of the world.  It grew upon me that I ought to walk out to the horizon and see what the end of the world was like.” 


“The daring of the thing held me back for a while, but the thing became so urgent that I showed it to my friend, Carrie Roberts, and asked her to go with me.  She agreed.  We sat up in the trees and disputed about what the end of the world would be like when we got there - whether it was sort of tucked under like the hem of a dress, or just was a sharp drop off into nothingness.  So we planned to slip off from our folks bright and soon next morning and go see.”


Maha-Nimba is the native Sanskrit name of the Chinaberry tree, meaning “Great-Neem.”  Neem,  a tree perhaps better known to herbalists in the West, is also in the Mahogany family. But true to its name, the Maha-Nimba grows to twice the size of the Nimba tree and its medicine is considered more powerful. Hence extra care is required in working with the Maha-Nimba. In Ayurvedic tradition, both Maha-Nimba and Nimba barks are employed as cooling agents. They are useful in balancing an agrivated fire element (pitta dosha), the treatment of malaria and other inflammatory conditions. The leaves of both trees also serve as a natural insecticide.


Chinaberry seeds have another important use in the making of traditional prayer beads. The shopkeepers of Boudanath seem to know them only by the tree’s Nepali name of “Bakaino.” But I found only one shop that sold them. I was told that Bakaino prayer bead use represents a much older tradition than the other modern bead preferences. I found one store off the beaten path that had an abundance of Bakaino beads in stock so I loaded up! Now the hands of close family and friends in North Carolina are all intimately tied to the Chinaberry tree.


This week I came upon a large mother Chinaberry tree located behind a rural farm house not far from my home. I noticed her offspring were rising up as saplings against a nearby fading red barn where the grass had not been mowed. I paused at a distance before the venerable tree and gently spoke her native Sanskrit name “Maha-Nimba,” a name she likely had not heard for quite some time.


In the center of her canopy was an opening in the branches that allowed me to “see” straight through the tree to the infinite lilac-blue sky beyond.  At that very moment I noticed  behind her the full moon rising in the East.   I adjusted my position, aligning my point of view so that the moon would appear to beam directly at me as it’s light passed through the tree’s center opening. Like Zora, I too experienced the Chinaberry as a truly cosmic tree.


I stood silently in the evening summer breeze. The song of field crickets softly harmonized with my mood. I pondered if I had actually helped this wandering arboreal being to recall her previous existence in the  far off Himalayas, perhaps many generations or even many incarnations ago. Or was it the Chinaberry tree who was there as a guide for my own wandering spirit, to help me recall my True Self - that divine inner being that we all are and have always been …