Spirit of Rowan 2022: How China Grove earned its distinct name

Published 12:00 am Sunday, March 27, 2022

The very name of the town seems to beg the question.

Why is it called China Grove?

Chartered in 1889, the southern Rowan County town is named for the grove of Chinaberry trees that once stood near the old train depot. Although the exact reason why the non-native trees were planted is unknown, the shade their branches provided was likely appreciated by travelers on hot summer days.

The Chinaberry tree is native to Pakistan, India, southeast Asia and Australia. The tree can grow up to 50 feet tall with a large spreading canopy and is said to exude a pleasant fragrance. The light yellow berries produced by the tree are toxic to humans and other animals, but are eaten by some birds.

The Chinaberry was likely introduced to the United States in the 1700s or 1800s as an ornamental tree. The trees are still cultivated in some nurseries today, but are now classified as an invasive species in the southeastern United States because they spread quickly, can crowd out native plant species and have few ecological competitors.

An exact number of Chinaberry trees planted near the train station was not recorded, only that it was a “grove,” defined as a small group of trees. The grove eventually died, its few remaining trees lasting until the early 1900s. The train depot was dismantled in 1974.

People not native to the China Grove area might recognize the town’s unique name thanks to The Doobie Brothers. The band’s 1973 hit “China Grove” climbed to No. 15 on the Billboard Hot 100 and has remained popular since. Lyrics to the catchy, easily recognizable tune were actually written about a fictional town in Texas, but that doesn’t stop China Grove residents from singing along when the song is inevitably played at town gatherings. While Doobie Brothers band member Tom Johnson didn’t know it when he wrote the song, there is an actual China Grove, Texas, that happens to be near San Antonio.

Rowan County’s China Grove has promoted its distinctive name in its branding. The “I” in the municipal logo is the trunk of a colorful Chinaberry tree and the town’s official motto is “come grow with us.”

“It is definitely a unique name and I love the name of China Grove because of it being unique and I think China Grove is a unique town,” Mayor Charles Seaford said.

Although the old train depot and the original grove of Chinaberry trees are no more, there are said to be a few Chinaberry trees still standing in China Grove.

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About Ben Stansell

Ben Stansell covers business, county government and more for the Salisbury Post. He joined the staff in August 2020 after graduating from the University of Alabama. Email him at ben.stansell@salisburypost.com.

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