Swietenia mahagoni

West Indian mahogany


Swietenia mahagoni

(L.) Jacq. 1760

pronounced: swee-TEEN-ee-uh mah-HAH-go-nye

(Meliaceae — the white cedar family)


common name: West Indian mahogany

Swietenia is a genus of trees named after Gerard van Swieten, the 18th century Dutch botanist and physician to Maria Theresa, the Holy Roman Empress.

There are three species in the genus, Swietenia humilis, the Pacific Coast Mahogany, Swietenia macrophylla, the Honduras Mahogany, and Swietenia mahagoni, the West Indian Mahogany, native to the West Indies, the Bahamas and Southern Florida. The three species are poorly defined biologically, partly because they hybridize freely when grown in proximity.
Mahagoni comes from two Hindi/Sanskrit words meaning ‘great qualities’. The genus is famed as the supplier of mahogany, at first from Swietenia mahagoni, which was so extensively used locally and exported to Europe from the 16th century onwards for the manufacture of fine furniture that the tree is now an endangered species. Mahogany wood is one of the most valuable cabinet woods in the world. It is hard, and reddish in colour. Chippendale and Hepplewhite cabinets made from mahogany in the mid-1700s are worth a small fortune today. These days almost all mahogany sold for furniture-making comes from Swietenia macrophylla.

All species of Swietenia are CITES-listed, and are not supposed to cross a border without considerable paperwork. International environmental organizations such as Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth and Rainforest Action Network have focused on Swietenia to expose illegal traffic in the wood, especially from Brazil. There were formerly large stands of this tree in Florida, but it has been felled almost to extinction. There are still some to be found in the Everglades National Park and in the North Key Largo State Botanical site, but large specimens are rare, due to tree poaching from these parks.

Swietenia mahagoni is a grand tree with a broad, dense symmetrical crown and a straight trunk which is often buttressed and swollen at the base. It has the potential to grow to 35 m tall, with a trunk diameter of more than 60 cm. There are two magnificent specimens near the public lavatories in Picnic Bay. I believe that there were originally 8 of these trees, but that the other 6 were removed to make space for the lavatories.

These are semi-deciduous trees that lose their old leaves at the end of winter just as the new growth is beginning. They may be leafless for only a week or two. The leaves of the mahogany are unique among North American native trees. They are paripinnately compound, with 3–6 pairs of asymmetric leaflets, and no leaf at the tip. Each leaflet is 5–15 cm long. The newly unfolding leaves are reddish-purple, soon turning to yellowish green.

Mahogany is monoecious, and produces small, fragrant, rather inconspicuous flowers on the new growth as the leaves are emerging. The flowers are produced in loose inflorescences, each flower small, with 5 white to greenish yellow petals.

The conspicuous fruits are very woody 5-lobed capsules, pear-shaped, about 13 cm long, that persist on the branchlets until the leaves begin to fall in the following spring. They open up into star-shapes to release their seeds, and the individual segments soon fall to the ground. The seeds are winged with papery vanes, are 5–9 cm long, and dispersed by the wind.

The sapwood is light pink to yellowish brown, and usually distinct from the hardwood, which varies from medium to deep red-brown. The timber darkens on exposure. Some logs produce streaky timber. The wood has a moderaetly fine texure, with the grain straight to wavy or interlocked; it often has an attractive figure. After felling and sawing it dries fairly rapidly with very little distortion. It is a softwood and easy to work with hand tools. When the timber is machined, the cutters need to be kept very sharp, or the finish can be rather woolly. As mentioned earlier, mahogany is used for high quality cabinet-making.

Photographs taken at Picnic Bay 2008, 2012
Page last updated 14th April 2019