Mahogany (Swietenia meliaceae) is a straight-grained, reddish brown timber of three tropical hardwood species indigenous to the Americas.
The Three Mahogany Species
Honduran or big-leaf mahogany (Swietenia macrophylla) is a type that grows in the ranges of Mexico the Amazon of southern Brazil. This is the most widespread of the mahogany species known. It is largely grown and used for commercial purposes.
West Indian or Cuban mahogany (Swietenia mahagoni) is a native of the areas in Southern Florida and the Caribbean. This species is considered the main choice for commercial uses in the past however, due to the illegal activities involving some people, it was declared in 2003 by the Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species (CITIES) as endangered.
Swietenia humilis is a mahogany species that is less used commercially. It is characteristically small and often grows twisted. This only naturally grows in the Central American forest. There are experts who believe that the species is a variant of S. Macrophylla.
Apart from the three species of mahogany which serves as a source of timber, there are similar species that are related to them such as the: African mahogany (genera Khaya and Entandrophragma) from the family of Meliaceae, Philippine mahogany from the family Dipterocarpaceae, New Zealand mahogany (Dysoxylum spectabile) similar to the African mahogany family of Meliaceae, Chinese mahogany (Toona Sinensis) is the same as New Zealand’s mahogany also from the family Meliaceae. Due to the characteristics of these species, these are still considered the same as the true mahoganies despite not being listed under the recognized species.
Mahogany is highly-important in the timber industry due to its color, durability and beauty thus earning it a reputation as a prized lumber. It is utilized to create boats, panelling, musical instruments, furniture and other things. The United States is the primary consumer of this wood followed by Britain. The largest producer of mahogany in the world is Peru since Brazil has banned its export of mahogany in 2001.
While other countries use mahogany commercially and as an income source, it is considered the national tree of the Dominican Republic and Belize. Found in the Belize coat of arms is the national motto: under the shade I flourish.
The Pacific coastlines and areas which are naturally dry support the growth of these species. There were botanists in the past who attempted to define other variants of mahogany found in Northern and Southern America as new species. Experts however do not believe that there is a need for this. The authorities neglected these claims and consider all mahogany variants growing in the Northern and Southern American region as part of the Swietenia Macrophylla King.
The name was first associated by the British as one of the islands in the West Indies under their colonial control. The French know this as Acajou and Caoba to the Spanish. The name’s origin is still uncertain until today although there are beliefs that it is derived from the word m’oganwo, a term used by the people of Yoruba and Ibo of West Africa. It meant to describe the Khaya tree, a close relative of the Swietenia. The word was corrupted thus it became mahogany. The naturalists and botanists however consider the tree as a type of cedar due to its characteristics. Carl Linnaeus classified this tree as Cedrela mahogany in 1759 but it was changed by Nicholas Joseph Jacquin as Swietenia mahagani the following year.
From its discovery until the 19th century, mahogany was considered as a single species that has no varints although the characteristics could vary depending on the soil and climate quality.
In 1836, German botanist Joseph Gerhard Zuccarini has identified the second specie which he named Swietenia humilis. Sir George King classified the third species Swietenia macrophylla in 1886 after he studied the mahogany species from Honduras which were planted in the Botanic Garden of Calcutta in India. Today, the listed Swietenia species which are grown on the natural habitat are under the list and protection of CITIES.
Species Swietenia mahagani and Swietenia macrophylla were introduced to some Asian countries and are successfully grown and harvested in the plantations. The world supply of genuine mahogany now comes from Asian plantations in India, Bangladesh, Indonesia and Fiji in Oceania.
Swietenia can be cross-fertilized when planted in close proximity. The hybrids that are produced are readily planted for timber.
There are various species of mahoganies that are under different names primarily for the commercial purpose of the timber such as the Philippine mahogany.
History of American Mahogany Trade
Mahogany was used in the early 17th century in building canoes. There are accounts of Europeans that also indicate that this is used by Indians and Spanish colonizers. It is used in building crosses in cathedrals and interior joinery but the main use is mainly in ship building. It was traded earlier by sending off export quality timber from English-controlled islands such as the Jamaica and the Bahamas.
Mahogany trading flourished in the 17th century for Spanish and French territories but this did not continue for the British in the 18th century. The British perceived in 1721 a possibility of trading in West Indian timbers because the timbers produced from American-controlled territories were not able to meet export expectations. Mahogany is not just used for ship building then but also for making furniture because of the excellent quality.
Mahogany Tree at Kannavam Forest, Kerala
Since the 17th century, most of the produced mahogany was imported into Britain used by furniture makers. Part of the timber imported from the North American colonies which are also used in making furniture.
Trade was very significant even at the end of the 17th century that even the inferior grade of timber was also imported in Britain even in small quantities. The trades were not highly-regarded because the timber are not as good as the ones produced in Jamaica.
A Single Seed of Mahogany
The Honduras mahogany is a new addition to the variety. This is also in demand and is called “baywood” named after the Bay of Honduras. This was discovered when the British landed in Honduras and saw that the people’s occupation was mainly cutting timber. At this time, dyewood was in demand in Europe. Because of the high demand of Timber in Europe, the British aims to provide export-quality timber. With the increase in the number of timber in Europe therefore the price of other timber decreased while mahogany’s price remained high. The cutters then resorted to cutting mahogany timber therefore leading to the first time that mahogany was imported from Honduras.
By the end of the 17th century, mahogany trade from Jamaica was cut and the market was divided into two different sources. The mahogany from Honduras flourished more though because it is cheaper. The Spanish still prefers the mahogany timber because of its good quality. Even the United States preferred the mahogany from Cuba.
In the last years of the 18th century, mahogany was rampantly used in France and is widely used from Saint Domingue, Spain. The rest of Europe demanded high-quality timber provided mainly by Britain.
At the end of the 17th century, mahogany trade flourished in many colonies of Britain, France and Spain. Mexico, Panama, Guatemala, Colombia, Venezuela, Peru, Brazil and other Central American countries also emerged as new mahogany timber sources. In Peru, Venezuela and Brazil, large-scale logging was initiated.
Mahogany is characteristically with straight, fine and even grains free of voids and pockets. It also has a reddish-brown color that darkens over time and displays a reddish sheen after polishing. It is workable and durable. The girth of the tree is historically known to allow for making wide boards. These properties are favourable in making cabinets and other furniture.
Most of the first-quality furniture was made in American colonies in the mid-18th century as the wood first became available to American craftsmen. Mahogany is still widely-used for fine furniture but the rarity of Cuban mahogany and the over harvesting of Honduras and Brazilian mahogany that led to its diminished used.
Mahogany resists wood rot which makes it a favourable material for boat construction. It is also used for musical instruments, particularly the backs, sides and necks of acoustic guitars and drum shells due to its capacity to produce a very deep and warm tone in comparison to maple or birch. Guitars that feature mahogany in their construction include: Martin D-15, Gibson Les Paul models and Tim Armstrong’s signature Fender model, the Hellcat.
Mahogany is also used in the creation of bodies for high-end stereo phonograph, record cartridges and stereo headphones. It is noted mostly for its warm and musical sound.