|Cultivated tree, India|
Swietenia mahagoni, commonly known as the West Indies Mahogany, is a species of Swietenia native to southern Florida, USA, The Bahamas, Cuba, Jamaica, St. Croix, United States Virgin Islands, and Hispaniola. It is the species from which the original mahogany wood was produced.
Swietenia mahagoni is listed as "Threatened" in the Preservation of Native Flora of Florida Act.
The earliest recorded use of S. mahagoni was in the year 1514. That date was carved into a rough-hewn cross placed at the beginning of the Catedral de Santa María la Menor in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic. The cathedral was richly ornamented with carved S. mahagoni woodwork that was still in almost perfect condition after more than 400 years in the tropics. Completed about 1540, it is the oldest church in the West Indies. Santo Domingo is the oldest European-founded city in the Western Hemisphere. Bartholomew Columbus, a brother of Christopher Columbus, founded it in 1496. Other records refer to the use of mahogany between 1521 and 1540 when Spanish explorers employed the wood for making canoes and for ship repair work in the West Indies. The next significant recorded use was in 1597 regarding repairs for Sir Walter Raleigh's ships in the West Indies. The first documented use in Europe of West Indies mahogany for major building structures prior to 1578 was in Spain. It was specified for use in the construction and interior trim of one of the great Renaissance churches of Europe, the Escorial. It is evident that its merits were well-known and that it was used extensively, or the king's advisors would not have requisitioned it for making the fancy furniture and trim work of a group of the most beautiful buildings in Europe. "When in 1578 the king ordered incorruptible and very good woods - cedar, ebony, mahogany, acana, guayacan and iron wood - sent to embellish the Excorial, they had to be brought from a distance by the slaves. A shipment of such woods was made in the summer of 1579 and others followed through a period of ten years at least." Its first major use in Spain and England was for ship building and during the eighteenth century it was the chief wood employed in Europe for that purpose. Mark Catesby's Natural History describes mahogany's excellence in that regard. "[Mahogany] has Properties for that Use excelling Oak, and all other Wood, viz. Durableness, resisting Gunshots, and burying the Shot without Splintering." That merchant ships calling on West Indies ports took on occasional parcels of mahogany logs prior to 1666 may be accepted from what Davis says: "Some masters of ships who trade to the Caribbies many times bring thence planks of this wood which are of such length and breadth that there needs but one to make a fair and large table."
Its blossom is the national tree of the Dominican Republic.
Mahogany, cedar and other woods were shipped more or less regularly from the West Indies to Spain long before 1575, for Spain at that time dominated the world and her demand for ship building timbers was enormous. Spain itself had no timber suitable for building ships and her unfriendly relations with north Europe made it impossible to draw supplies from that source. The natural conclusion is that Spain obtained timber from San Domingo, Cuba and Jamaica for building many ships of the Spanish Armada prior to 1588. See also Catesby's reference above regarding mahogany's superior resistance to cannonballs. A number of the largest Spanish ships were built of West Indies mahogany. Spain looked to Cuba for masts for ships, since rebellion in Flanders (The 80 Years War started in 1566) had closed that source of supply. Spain continued building ships from West Indies mahogany for two hundred more years. "...Several Spanish man-of-war were captured by the British during naval battles. One of these, the Gibraltar, of 80 guns, captured by Lord Rodney off Cape St. Vincent was broken up in the royal dock yard at Pembroke, and though she must have been one of the oldest ships afloat, yet all her timbers were so sound as when they were put into her, and the whole British navy, and if I (Capt. Chaffell, secretary of the Royal Mail Steam Packet Company) am not mistaken, are now supplied with tables made out of the Gibraltar timbers. The Gibraltar was captured in 1780 and was finally broken up in 1836. Clayton Dissinger Mell's 1917 monograph expanded use in ship construction. "It is particularly suited for planking, waterways, bulwarks, rails, skylights and companions, bitts, gangway ladders, and other deck work. With the later employment of iron, steel and teak in shipbuilding, mahogany became far more important as a furniture wood, though it is still preferred to any other wood for the framework of small sailing vessels. Large sailing vessels with mahogany framework were sold for enormous prices and manufactured into fine furniture." During World War II mahogany was used in the construction of small boats from the 21-24 meter (70 to 80 foot) PT boats (motor Patrol Torpedo) to the small rescue boats that were parachuted from rescue planes. During WW II the use of mahogany for boat construction increased from 1,350 M board feet in 1940 to 21,500 M board feet in 1943. Often reputed to be made of plywood, PT boats were actually made of diagonal layered 25mm (one inch) thick mahogany planks with a glue-impregnated layer of canvas in between. As a testament to the strength of this type of construction several PT boats withstood catastrophic battle damage and still remained afloat. The most notable of those instances was PT-109 then commanded by a young officer, John F. Kennedy, who later became the President of the United States. The forward half of his boat stayed afloat for 12 hours after she was rammed by a Japanese destroyer. The U.S. Navy Bureau of Ships approves mahogany for use in small boats and high-speed boats that require a wood easy to work, medium in weight but adequate in strength, with low shrinking, swelling, and warping characteristics, and high decay resistance. Mahogany, in 1966, still held an important place in the construction of yachts, launches, motorboats, and small boats of various kinds. In large ships its use is confined largely to interior trim, paneling, and furniture. In a large luxury liner, the volume for such uses may be considerable.
The Spanish explorers were quick to appreciate West Indies Mahogany's splendid properties and its early importation and use in cabinetwork is attested by the 16th Century date of some fine Spanish Renaissance remains. Queen Elizabeth is said to have been interested in some mahogany brought by Sir Walter Raleigh after his return from Trinidad in 1595. As far as mahogany use in furniture making, no headway was made in England against the domestic oak and walnut until the 18th Century. The first use of S. mahagoni in the United Kingdom for cabinet work was in 1724. Mahogany is the essential ingredient of the great 18th Century School, which Macquoid calls the Age of Mahogany. Not only the United Kingdom, but France, Spain and Italy have used the wood more or less continuously since that time. The Empire Period featured it extensively; The Federal Period (1780-1830) in American work is essentially a mahogany style. Mell's paper of 1917 reminds us of the extensive use in his time but some of those uses have diminished. Then, mahogany was much used for the interior finish of railroad parlor cars, public buildings, hotels, and dwellings and for office fixtures. It also was used extensively for pianofortes, for astronomical and surveying instruments and for the cases of all sorts of delicate apparatus, such as scales, microscopes, and microtomes. The tonewood value of S. mahagoni is reflected in the employment of mahogany for modern musical instruments. It is sometimes utilized in the tops of some guitars as well as the back, sides and neck. It is not uncommon in older mandolins. It is also used for some kinds of electrical guitars such as the Les Paul Custom, Deluxe and Studio models. Three-ply laminations of mahogany, poplar and mahogany are found in top of the line drum shells. Mahogany is used for the wooden bars of marimbas.
Before the American revolution, botanists from Europe explored and described the flora of the Carolinas and Florida. Forty-two years before naturalist and illustrator John James Audubon was born, Volume Two of Mark Catesby's folio sized natural history was published. Catesby's hand-colored plate, 25 cm horizontal and 35 cm vertical (ca. 10x14 inches), of the mahogany tree, along with a description in English and French (not Latin as many might expect), was the basis for Linnaeus using his new binomial nomenclature to name it. Linnaeus' description was published in 1758 as Cedrela mahagoni. Two years later Nikolaus Joseph von Jacquin reclassified it and placed the West Indies Mahogany Tree into his newly created genus, Swietenia. His classification still stands. However, 1758 was more than 200 years after mahogany was well-known to the lumber and woodworking trades.
Swietenia mahagoni is a medium-sized semi-evergreen tree growing to 30–35 metres (98–115 ft) tall. The leaves are pinnate, 12–25 centimetres (4.7–9.8 in) long, with four to eight leaflets, each leaflet 5–6 centimetres (2.0–2.4 in) long and 2–3 centimetres (0.79–1.2 in) broad; there is no terminal leaflet. The flowers are small, produced in panicles. The fruit is a woody capsule 5–10 centimetres (2.0–3.9 in) long and 3–6 centimetres (1.2–2.4 in) broad, containing numerous winged seeds.
The bark in younger specimens is smooth and grayish, becoming darker and furrowed with age. In the U.S. mahoganies are semi-deciduous, losing all or most of their leaves over winter or shedding at the flush of new growth in spring. New leaves emerge blood red to pinkish, quickly becoming a bright, light green and darkening as they mature.
In the Florida Keys and south Florida, the species grows at the northern extent of its range, with individuals reaching 10–15 metres (33–49 ft) tall.
Cultivation and uses
It is also grown as an ornamental tree in subtropical and tropical regions.
There has been some research into the acaricidal effects of its leaves and bark for control of the honey bee pest Varroa destructor (El-Zalabani et al. 2012).
U.S. Federal Experimental Forest
Since 1954 the United States government has owned and maintained a 147 acre observation plot of secondary growth S. mahagoni at Estate Thomas on St. Croix, United States Virgin Islands. It is managed jointly by the International Institute of Tropical Forestry with an adjoining privately owned tree farm at Estate Bellevue which belongs to the testamentary estate of Dr. Richard Marshall Bond a biologist who supervised the establishment of the federal tree farm at Estate Thomas.
West Indies Mahogany is native to southern Florida; therefore an umbrella of state, federal and international conservation laws cover it. The other two species of Swietenia are also tonewoods used in the making of musical instruments. In addition to furniture and other woodwork, boxes and cases for mechanisms and similar valuables have a long history of being made of Swietenia.
The US Lacey Act of 1900: One of the provisions of the Lacey Act is that it requires a documented chain of possession for anything sold in USA. The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) lists S. mahagoni in Appendix II (only saw-logs, sawn wood and veneers). The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) classifies S. mahagoni as Endangered. S. mahagoni is also listed as "Threatened" in the Preservation of Native Flora of Florida Act.
- IUCN Red List: Swietenia mahagoni
- DANIDA Factsheet: Swietenia mahagoni
- http://florida.plantatlas.usf.edu/Plant.aspx?id=3577 on University of South Florida website
- Lamb, F. Bruce. Mahogany of Tropical America Its Ecology and Management. The University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor. p. 10. 1966
- The World Book Encyclopedia Vol. 17. p. 117. 2011.
- Mell, C.D. Biography of the Word Mahogany The Timberman October–December 1930, Portland, Oregon.
- Wright, Irene Aloha The Early History of Cuba (1492-1586) Macmillan, New York. 1916. p. 307.
- Mell, C.D. True Mahogany US Dept. of Agriculture Bulletin No. 474. Professional Paper, February 9, 1917. Washington, D.C.
- Catesby, Mark: Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands. Volume 2, Plate 80 (illustration), text page 81. English and French. 1754.
- Davies (no first name). The History of Barbados, etc. London. 1666. Chapter III p.39. (original edition in French was published in 1658)
- Lecky, H. S. The King's Ships Vol. III, 1914, p. 153.
- Bureau of Ships. Wood: a manual for its use in wooden vessels. Forest Products Lab., Bureau of Ships, Washington D.C. 1945. pp.229.
- Aronson, Joseph. The New Encyclopedia of Furniture. Crown Publishers, Inc. New York. 1967.
- Rolf, R.A. The True Mahoganies. Bulletin of Miscellaneous Information. Vol. No. 4. 1919. p. 202. Kew Gardens. England.
- Linnaeus, Carolus: Systema Natura 10,2: p. 940. 1758.
- Jacquin, N.J.: Enumeratio systematica planetarium, quas in insulis Caribaeis vicinaque Americes continente detexit novas, aut jam cognitas emendavit (1760).