Swietenia mahagoni: Mahogany

Family: Meliaceae
Common name: Mahogany, American mahogany, Cuban mahogany, small-leaved mahogany, West Indian mahogany, Dominican mahogany, Jamaican mahogany, Spanish mahogany, West Indies mahogany, Puerto Rico mahogany

One of the largest and most popular trees that are used to make furniture, Mahogany is very commonly seen in India in home gardens, backyards, landscaped areas, and roadsides. They grow into very big trees, about 30-35 meters in height and 1-meter trunk diameter.

The trunk is large, brown, fissured, and flaky with many buttresses giving the trunk an even larger girth. Mahogany trees are well-branched with heavy, thick branches, giving adequate shade over a large area. Leaves are pinnate containing 4-8 pairs of dark green leaflets that are 6-10 cms long. Branches are smooth in young trees but grown rugged and scaly with age.

In cold or drought-prone areas, the Mahogany tree is deciduous, shedding all its leaves before new tender leaves come in. The tree produces small greenish-yellow flowers that are 5-7mm in diameter on small panicles.

Mahogany fruits are very unique, brown and bulbous, standing upright on the tree, pointing upwards. They are 8-10 cms long, 4-5 cms in diameter, and splits into 5 separate valves from the base. These fruits contain numerous brown, winged seeds that are 4-6 cms long.

Fruits are produced only after 30-40 years of growth, and the tree lives for 300-350 years. They prefer full sun and rich, well-drained soil. A tropical tree, Mahogany trees are resistant to strong winds, poor soil, pollution, salinity, and weather fluctuations.

It’s an heirloom tree, living through many generations, aging gracefully and slowly. No parts of the tree are edible. But they have uses in construction and furniture making. Common species seen in India are Swietenia mahagoni and Swietenia macrophylla, the latter characterized by their larger leaves.

In Kerala, the southernmost state of India, Mahogany is very popular in construction; the beautiful, versatile wood used for pillars, kitchen panels, sofa, beds, etc. Wood carvings are seen very commonly on door frames and ceilings in Kerala architecture – mahogany, rosewood, and teak being regularly used for this purpose.

It was used for making ships in the past, for planks, bulwarks, waterways, decks, ladders, etc. Mahogany is also used in making musical instruments like guitars, mandolins, drums, and marimbas.

The wood is reddish-brown in color with occasional streaks of dark red or brown. It is moderately soft and takes to planing, drilling, and cutting reasonably well. That’s one reason Mahogany furniture is in demand all over the world. Many countries now have laws to prevent the over-use and felling of Mahogany trees, listing them as a Threatened or Protected species.

Propagation is through seeds.