Soapberry versus Chinaberry

By Pauline Tom

Western soapberry trees (Sapindus drummondii) and chinaberry trees (Melia azedarach) grow in Mountain City.

What’s the difference?

That’s what I needed to know. We have a volunteer tree that’s producing berries that look, to the uneducated eye, like chinaberries.

The “genuine” chinaberry tree is an extremely invasive non-native tree. Help the eco-system by pulling them up. My hatchet prepared to speak if our unidentified tree turned out to be a chinaberry.

The soapberry tree (sometimes called “chinaberry” or “wild chinaberry”) is a valuable native tree. In addition to providing food for fruit-eating birds (including Eastern bluebird), it hosts the caterpillar of the lovely soapberry hairstreak butterfly. 

Native Americans and pioneers used the poisonous-to-human berries as soap. The plump berries I plucked felt soapy. The Wildflower Center says that even today the berries are used as soap in Mexico. They’re an irritant to some with sensitive skin.

It turns out, the alien chinaberry tree has leaves with jagged edges. Our tree cannot be a chinaberry.

In the sun, its fruit glowed with that color that’s between red and green on a traffic light. Inside, I saw a dark seed. The chinaberry’s berries are opaque, usually yellow.

To confuse identifying the tree earlier in the year, when there was no fruit, the exotic Chinese pistache (Pistacia chinensis), has soapberry-looking leaves. Mr. Tokar planted our male Chinese pistache when our house was built 30-something years ago. (The male Chinese pistache does not contribute to the problem of non-natives usurping natives and making for problems in the eco-system). Alien that it is, it has a gorgeous densely foliaged shape and beautiful fall colors.

The soapberry will also have fall color. It’s hard to find in nurseries. Some may not want one because it produces suckers.

The leaf of a soapberry is also similar to a flame-leaf sumac. Now, that’s a small tree for fall color!

It’s doubtful anyone drives through Mountain City to see fall foliage. Folks do drive through to look at our Christmas lights and décor.




Look at a calendar. December sneaks in the day after Thanksgiving weekend. That’s a reason to be sneaky during November, preparing for de’lights of December.

Consider serving your neighbors by categorizing decorated addresses on December 8-9 so everyone can have fun voting with a ballot on December 12-14. Volunteer to me, the Décor Contest Lead.

The categories will include: Grand Prize, People’s Favorite, Sparkle, Creativity, Workshop, CHRISTmas, Santa, Theme, and Elegance.


Loving Mountain City is still missing a team to deckorate the hall, the City Hall, so its lights can delight by the time December hits. Volunteer to Amy at

When Loving Mountain City (LMC) was born, the City Council’s era of decorating City Hall had died. LMC volunteered to provide the labor and materials for the City Hall, the starting point of Tour de Lights. That’s how it is that LMC still appeals for labor and materials. Again this weekend, lights and décor may be placed in the blue donation bin near the city’s entrance.


What else is missing? Tidbits! Please submit to (subject: tidbit) or 512-268-5678.

Thanks! Love, Pauline

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