855 Swietenia mahoganiCommon Names: mahogany, West Indies mahogany, Spanish mahogany, Madeira redwood Family: Meliaceae (mahogany Family)
West Indies mahogany is a grand tree with a broad, dense symmetrical crown and a straight trunk often buttressed and swollen at the base. It has the potential to get 75 ft (22.9 m) tall with a trunk diameter in excess of 2 ft (0.6 m), but such large trees are very rare. Most mahoganies are no more than 30-40 ft (9.1-12.2 m) tall with 20-30 ft (6.1-9.1 m) canopy spreads. Mahogany is a semi-deciduous tree which loses its old leaves at the end of winter just as the new growth is beginning. It may be leafless for only a week or two. The leaves of mahogany are unique among North American native trees: They are even-pinnate compound, with three or four pairs of asymmetric leaflets and no leaflet at the tip. The newly unfolding leaves are reddish purple, soon turning to yellowish green. Mahogany produces small, fragrant, rather inconspicuous flowers on the year's new growth as the leaves are emerging, and both male and female flowers are produced on the same tree. The conspicuous fruits are woody five-lobed capsules, about 5 in (12.7 cm) long. They persist on the branchlets until leaf fall the following spring, when they split open to release the abundant seeds. The seeds are winged with papery vanes, about 2 in (5.1 cm) long, and dispersed by wind.
There are three species in the genus Swietenia, all native to the New World tropics. West Indies mahogany occurs in the West Indies, Bahamas and South Florida. In Florida, West Indies mahogany is restricted to tropical hammocks in parks and preserves on the Upper Florida Keys, and on the mainland in upland coastal hammocks in Everglades National Park. Unfortunately, large trees are scarce because the wood is very valuable and thieves sneak into the parks and preserves at night to poach the trees. Mahogany formerly extended further north in Florida, but it has been cut to extinction. You still can see fairly large specimens of this tropical beauty in its natural habitat in Mahogany Hammock in Everglades National Park, and in the North Key Largo State Botanical Site. Mahogany, Swietenia mahogani, is widely planted as a street and shade tree in South Florida.
CultureGiven ideal conditions, mahogany is a fast growing tree. It is tolerant of acidic to alkaline soils. During its formative years, keep mahogany pruned to a single leader with evenly spaced branches around the trunk. Light: Full sun to partial shade. Moisture: Mahogany needs regular watering for best growth. Established specimens can tolerate dry spells, but they may drop leaves. Hardiness: USDA Zones 10 - 11. Mahogany is marginal in zone 10A. It can be expected to drop leaves if temperatures drop much below 40ºF (4.4ºC). Propagation: Mahogany is difficult to start from cuttings, and usually is grown from seed. Mahogany's little winged seeds are spread by the wind and often give rise to numerous seedlings in the vicinity of mature trees.
Mahogany is a popular avenue, shade and framing tree in tropical South Florida. It often is used in parks and commercial landscapes, and around parking lots. On streets they usually are planted about 30 ft (9.1 m) apart. Mahogany casts only a light shadow and doesn't discourage grass and other plantings beneath it. West Indies mahogany is renowned for its ability to withstand strong winds, and it is moderately tolerant of salt spray and salty soils. It's a good large shade or specimen tree for coastal (but not fully exposed to the sea) landscapes.
The wood of mahogany is one of the most valuable cabinet woods of any tree. West Indies mahogany was the original mahogany shipped back to Europe.
The wood from several different unrelated trees is called "mahogany" in the trade. Some of these woods have no more in common with true mahogany than color.
The mahogany family is almost exclusively tropical in distribution, with more than 500 species in some 45 genera mainly in SE Asia, with a smaller number in tropical America. The only other member of the Meliaceae in the U.S. is Chinaberry, which is an invasive exotic originally from Asia.
Steve Christman 11/13/00; updated 4/21/04